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Mideast wars' unsung heroes: the wives left behind

Husbands' repeated deployments mean years of worry, plus the stress of handling everything at home on their own. Then there's how to handle their changed spouses when they come home.

April 07, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Gallagher with his wife, Tammy, and children Timmy, 7, left, Jewel, 3, and Taegen, 5. He is soon to deploy again. "You don't have peace of mind for as long as they're gone," Tammy says.
Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Gallagher with his wife, Tammy, and children Timmy,… (Kevin Mudd / Cool Cake Photography )

Five women sit at a dining room table in Camp Pendleton, talking about the dreadful task of saying goodbye to their husbands.


Marine wives: Steve Lopez's column in Wednesday's Section A on Marine wives described how Tammy Gallagher's son Timmy cried when his father first deployed to Iraq with the Marines. It was actually their son Taegen who cried, and it was when his father left home for a different assignment. The column also spoke of the stresses of combat life, citing an episode of road rage by Gallagher's husband and an outburst that woke him from sleep. Tammy Gallagher does not believe these incidents were combat-related. —

As you read this, their Marines, as they call them, are on the way to Afghanistan for seven months, maybe longer. Most of the Marines have already been to Iraq, and Holly Lavely's husband, Patrick, twice injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), is fit again and on his 10th deployment.

"The second time he was hurt, I was sure that was it -- he was going to die," Lavely says.

"You know that feeling of dread and going OK, you know he has been hurt twice. This isn't good. I can't rationalize this anymore. It's hard. It's very scary."

But here she is, rationalizing again, and doing what spouses do:

Taking over all household duties, from bill-paying to diaper-changing to lawn-mowing.

Telling the kids not to worry, Daddy will be OK.

And saving doubt, fear and tears for quiet moments when no one is watching.

The toll of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is generally measured in casualties, but there's a more common cost to which we pay little attention. That's why I've been visiting Camp Pendleton, reporting on the unheralded service of military spouses and children for both The Times and KCET's "SoCal Connected" (you can see the TV version Thursday night at 8).

You may have questions about the wisdom of these wars, as I've had from the beginning. But there's no doubting the sacrifices the Marines and their spouses are making.

Sure, they signed up for duty. No one forced them. But none of them could have predicted how unlike wars past this conflict would be, with multiple deployments and the constant stress created by IEDs and suicide bombers. The nature of the war on terror has meant more battlefield injuries, more mental disorders, more stress on spouses and children, more fractured families and financial catastrophe.

By appearances, the spouses I spoke to are coping miraculously well, in part because they all believe the cause is righteous. But they described a roller coaster of complicated psychological challenges before, during and even after deployment, challenges that affect the entire family.

Kimberly Brigante says that on one of her husband's three deployments, she brought their 3-year-old daughter Madison to the departure ceremony even though it was in the middle of the night.

"I wasn't going to take away her being able to tell him goodbye," Brigante says. But when it was time for the bus to depart, Madison told the commanding officer: "You can't have my daddy."

Madison finally relented, the bus rolled away, and for months, she watched every returning bus, hoping it would bring her father back. Finally, one did.

"There her daddy was, and she didn't have to worry that the bus wasn't coming," Brigante says. "He was finally there."

Michelle King, whose husband has deployed four times, says that after the bus leaves, she turns on the radio and sings along on the way home, hoping for her children's sake that her sobbing is drowned out by the music.

Tammy Gallagher says her "whole world pulled away" in 2003 when her husband, Staff Sgt. Tim Gallagher, 1st Battalion, waved goodbye from the bus on his way to Iraq.

"You don't have peace of mind for as long as they're gone," she says. Their son, Timmy, a toddler at the time, "sat at the bottom of the stairs by the front door and just started screaming and crying and yelling, 'Daddy.' "

Gallagher called another military spouse for advice.

"She said, 'Just let him scream. . . . There is nothing you can do about it.' "

When her husband returned, Tammy says, there was elation and a second honeymoon. And, by her account, a period in which Tim had to get beyond feeling as though he wasn't needed, given all that she'd handled in his absence.

Tammy struggled to know how to react when Tim awoke screaming in the middle of the night, or when he frightened her with his road rage. She wanted to help, but she also understood Marine culture and knew he wanted to handle things on his own. There was no clear answer for her.

And now here they were, ready to repeat the entire cycle with Tim's second deployment.

This one will be tougher, Tim thinks. He'll miss the kids' ballgames, school events, summer fun. He'll miss the birthdays of all three kids, and his wife's, as well. Tammy will send him letters and drawings from the kids. She'll wait for him to call, knowing it may be several weeks before he gets to a phone.

"I don't feel as invincible" as the first time, Tim says. "I think about it a little more now. Wow, I'm leaving my wife, my three children."

He and Tammy, both 30, have talked about what to do "if something were to happen to me," as Tim puts it.

"Everybody has a plan," Tammy says.

Her shoulders collapse and her eyes fill, Tim holding her hand for support.

"If there were a medal out there for spouses and wives," Tim says, "I would definitely award that to her, but there's not. So they're kind of the unsung heroes not only in my life, but the military in general. [If] we don't have their support, it would be very difficult."

To see a preview of the SoCal Connected news story, go to

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