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Advice that's on base

In her column `Dear Ms. Vicki,' an Army wife and social worker at Ft. Campbell offers candid counsel to soldiers and families. She can relate.

January 26, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Ft. Campbell, Ky. — AFTER unveiling his plan for a troop increase in Iraq this month, President Bush spoke of the burden borne by America's military families -- of "the quiet sacrifices of lonely holidays and empty chairs at the dinner table."

The spare, elegant phrase evoked a stoic longing worthy of an Edward Hopper painting. But real life tends to be messier than rhetoric.

Indeed, here, on the sprawling, utilitarian home of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, there is a more intimate catalog of those burdens -- a running account of the cheating hearts, bedroom dramas, exasperated parents and emotionally wounded soldiers that has flourished with repeat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is an advice column, "Dear Ms. Vicki," published in the base newspaper, the Fort Campbell Courier. Thanks to the candor of its letter writers, it has become an unexpected hit -- a sort of Ann Landers for the warrior set, and the kin left behind.

"Hello Ms. Vicki ... I found out that my husband started cheating on me while overseas," wrote Wife Seeking Peace of Mind. "I do not know what to do, and I love him so much...."

"My son chose to marry a stripper before he deployed," wrote A Mother with Morals. "This woman has torn our family apart and has ruined his finances...."

"Ever since my wife returned from Iraq, she's been having nightmares, waking up with sweats, even screaming and yelling," wrote Worried Husband. "She won't eat, and she is losing weight...."

Answering them is Vicki Johnson, 45, an on-base clinical social worker. She is also a proud military spouse of two decades -- a patriot who is quick to note that heroic sacrifices are made not only on the battlefield but also around the dinette set.

She acknowledges, however, that even heroes can make a mess of their personal lives.

"The people in the military are equipped with this skill set that sets them apart," she said. "But we're also real people, with real problems -- the military just happens to be our career."

The strain of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts on relationships is well documented: In fiscal 2001, about 5,500 Army marriages ended in divorce. Three years later, when the total number of married soldiers was about the same, the number of divorces nearly doubled, to 10,500. A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine screened soldiers before and after deployment, and found that a "significantly higher" percentage met the criteria for major depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcohol misuse after their return.

Other problems are harder to quantify -- though no less vexing. "I am a divorced mother with three children," one letter to Ms. Vicki stated. "My elderly parents took care of my children while I was in Iraq.... I came back to three overweight children. All my parents did was feed my children to death, instead of keeping them active and healthy. If you can't trust your parents, who can you trust?"

Vicki replied with a typical mix of compassion and candor:

"I truly thank you for your sacrifice to your country," she wrote. "However, I think you are being too hard on your elderly parents. They were trying to help you continue with a military career by taking care of your 3 children ... hello!"

VICKI and her family moved to Ft. Campbell in July 2004 from Washington, D.C., where her husband, Lt. Col. Nathaniel "Skip" Johnson, a career military man, had served for two years as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Now his orders were to join the 101st and lead a combat battalion in Iraq.

The Johnsons and their three sons had spent most of the last two decades hopping around the country from base to base as Skip ascended the chain of command. Though they had never lived at Ft. Campbell, the landscape was familiar: on base, modest one- and two-story houses lined tidy streets named for famous battles -- a government-issue replica of suburbia. Waiting beyond the gates: a six-lane strip of car lots and honky-tonks.

What was new was the acute sense of anxiety. The 101st Airborne Division -- more than 20,000 troops -- was gearing up to spend a year in Iraq. The soldiers had been there before, in 2003. But then, the war was new, the prospects were exciting and some thought it might be over quickly.

This time, families who had been through it before knew what to expect, but many were still weary from the previous yearlong deployment.

The Johnsons, by contrast, were out of practice. Skip hadn't been on an extended deployment since his seven-month stint in Operation Desert Storm.

"We all knew that this was a different war," Vicki said. "We're already hearing about the casualties. It was very heated, and escalating. I knew he wasn't going on vacation."

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