At Brooke Thompson's house on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the cars arrive mid-morning. Women come up the driveway balancing babies and bowls of fruit and pans of breakfast pastries. Older children buzz through the door and run upstairs.
When your husband is in Afghanistan, no one person can fill the space left in the house. No one person can understand your kids and be a sounding board when you're too tired to make sense and know how to mow the grass under the trampoline. No one person can do all that. But 11 can come close.
The 11 women who find their way to Thompson's long kitchen table each week are Democrats and Republicans, Christians and nonbelievers. Some are in their 20s, some are over 40. They come from all over, but those differences don't matter. What matters are their kids, and keeping their households running and caring for their relationships when their husbands are in Afghanistan, in harm's way, part of a deadly war that's been going on for so long it rarely makes the front page.
Army life is nomadic, and deployments are full of uncertainty. But over the last seven months, the women have found stability in each other. They have helped with moves, watched soccer games, shoveled roofs, fixed computers, cooked meals, cared for kids, rescued each other on roadsides, pushed strollers for miles, coached one another through bitter days, and seen one baby born.
With more than 3,000 troops deployed from JBER, hundreds of spouses in Anchorage, most of them women, are waiting for their husbands to return. When I visited last week, my second time at Thompson's table, seven were gathered: Megan Lutz, whose husband is a nurse; Jackie Pearsall, whose husband is a troop commander; Bridget Rainey, whose husband is a troop executive officert; Thompson, whose husband is the squadron chaplain; Heather Fulk, whose husband is a platoon sergeant; Teresa Cassibry, whose husband is the squadron commander; and Jennifer Bass, whose husband is a maintenance officer in the rear detachment and isn't currently deployed.
I asked them about the last thing their husbands asked them to send to Afghanistan. They all answered at once (they are used to talking at once). Brownies. Mouthwash. A toothbrush. Copenhagen long-cut chew. A George Strait guitar book.
We talked about what deployment does to a marriage. People make lots of assumptions, they said. Sure, there is strain. But you learn how to communicate and you work your way through it. A daily email. A weekly call. You try not to worry when you don't hear back right away. You try not to read into things. The information trade between husband and wife is careful. He keeps it brief, not wanting her to worry. She edits out details about things he can't control.
"It was a little crazy today," Fulk's husband tells her. "Not a big deal."
Fulk is a mother of two with a Southern accent and a straightforward way of putting things. "A little crazy" is probably code for seriously crazy, she said. She wouldn't want to know more even if he could tell her. They have a running joke that he is at sleep-away camp singing "Kumbaya."
"Hard work roasting marshmallows," she'll reply.
She doesn't watch the news. She stays focused on her kids. She figures if he feels like talking about what happened over there when he gets back, he will.
Lutz, whose husband is a nurse, wants to know what he's going through. She has a 5-year-old and a set of twins who are 3. This is their first deployment. She is former military herself, trained as a medic. She wants to feel like she's going through things with him.
He treats soldiers and insurgents. He treats local children. There was one soldier her husband treated that they did everything for. They were so hopeful he would make it, but he didn't. Later he had a patient who was an insurgent.
"Here this guy is alive and they are keeping him alive and they lost a soldier they wanted to save more than anything," she said.
One more thing about war it's hard to make sense of. She wonders how he'll feel when he gets back.
When husbands call, they always wants to hear about the little things. The baby had a fever. The fence guy gave an estimate. What's on the radio. Sometimes Fulk will just tell her husband about her trip to Fred Meyer and what she bought. He craves normal, she said. They all do.
That's why they just want to go to three movies when they come back for R&R, or walk through Walmart, or watch T-ball practice or drink glasses and glasses of fresh, non- irradiated milk. That's probably why Rainey's husband planted grass over there. Something familiar in the middle of an alien environment. She sent him a pink flamingo.
Being away and then coming back together makes you appreciate what you have, they said. Distance inspires romantic gestures. Presents sent by mail. Love letters. The trip home for R&R can be a heady honeymoon. All that can be good for a marriage, said Pearsall. She's eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Kinley, who is 19 months old, sat on her lap. Pearsall's family has been through three deployments, including one that was 15 months long.
"They scare you into thinking that (your husbands) are going to be completely different people," Pearsall said. "It's never been hard for us."
At first, when he came back, she wanted to be around him all the time because she missed him. And he wanted to be alone. She took it personally, until she realized "the poor guy has not been alone in like a year."
The worst part of deployment are the weeks leading up to the leaving, all of them said. Husbands packing and re-packing. The dog gets nervous. The kids get nervous. The anticipation grinds on everyone.
"There is so much build-up," Rainey said. "You just want him to go."
Somehow you end up in a fight by the end of it.
"That is a mechanism to kind of separate yourself," said Bass, who has been an Army wife for 16 years. "It's so much easier to have someone leave when you are agitated with them."
Around the table, a cellphone sat at each place. I asked what happens when they misplace them.
"Panic," everybody said at once.
Be there. That's their most important job. Be the anchoring voice on the other end of the line. Fulk told me she went for a walk once and forgot hers.
"I thought, you know, it's only a couple of hours," she said. "I got back, and he'd called me like nine times. I felt so bad I wanted to set myself on fire."
Of course, there are moments when perspective goes out the window. Kids are sick. House is chaotic. Something breaks and there is no one to fix it. Rainey gets mad at her husband and the Army when she gets lost. Pearsall's husband sent her a box of what he thought were her favorite chips on her birthday, but they were the wrong brand. When she opened them, she burst into tears. (It didn't help that she is pregnant.)
"I was crying about chips. Like, who does that?"
Rainey took Pearsall to lunch: reality check.
Lutz's son fell and broke his arm. He needed surgery. The whole thing overwhelmed her, she said. But when she got back from a long day at the hospital, dinner was waiting for her, courtesy of her Army sisters.
The night before my visit, word came that a soldier had been killed. He was the first soldier killed in this deployment that their husbands knew. It happened at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a place they thought of as safe. But really, nowhere over there is safe. They have been told to remember that.
Rainey is a key-caller for the Family Readiness Group. It had been her job the night before to call wives about a meeting where they could learn the details of what happened to the soldier. Some of the women she called thought that she was calling about their husbands. They lost it and started to weep. It was a long night, she said.
At Thompson's, Rainey's phone rang. She recognized the number as a wife who had missed the meeting the night before. That meant Rainey had to tell her about what happened to the soldier. She took the phone outside and came back with her hands shaking.
"Saying his name was hard," she said.
Anxiety is constant like background music, sometimes dialed up, sometimes dialed down. Some of them pray about it. Others run or quilt or make jokes. "A lot of people say that, 'Oh, Army wife, toughest job in the Army,' " Rainey said. "I don't think that's true."
Nobody is shooting at them, she said. And they have each other.