Eleven Months and a World Away

by James Robbins Jewell & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & ebruary 28, 2005, was a special day. That's when the personnel of the U.S. Navy's Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Unit 102, based in Spokane, began a journey that eventually found them serving with more than 100,000 other Americans and allies in the Persian Gulf.

While the news media does an adequate job of summarizing the military activity in the Persian Gulf, far too little attention has been paid to the families trying to adjust to life at home and their sacrifices while their loved ones are stationed overseas. For most of us, the fighting in the Middle East is a spectator event, one that we follow through the news outlets. Sure, there are those of us who know someone who has a relative overseas, but that is most often as close as it gets. Unless, of course, you are a military family -- then service in the Middle East is a much more personal experience. For the Berg family of Hayden, Idaho, with dad Matt serving overseas, the war was a daily reality, one of sacrifice, longing, anxiety and adjustment for mom Adrienne and the Bergs' two young children, Bryce and Hannah.

RIPPED TO FILL & r & Matt Berg is a veteran. A member of the U.S. Navy for 19 years, he served in the first Gulf War as part of Desert Storm. So in late 2004, when he was given the unpleasant news that he had been "ripped to fill" for service in the Gulf beginning early the following year, it was not a complete surprise. (The term refers to the practice of ripping someone out of their unit to fill vacancies in another command that is about to ship overseas.) Matt, a member of a Washington reserve outfit, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18, found himself assigned to another Washington unit scheduled to ship out in February 2005. As a Navy Seabee who has worked as a heavy equipment operator for the last 12 years in civilian life, he was called up to help rebuild war-torn Iraq.

The Bergs were able to spend Christmas 2004 together; they even celebrated young Bryce's birthday a bit early, so his dad could be there. (Unable to be there for daughter Hannah's June birthday, Matt sent her a special necklace.) Before his deployment, Matt and Adrienne had to go through the sobering routine of preparing for the worst. Standard items to be filled out include life insurance, burial request, in some cases a will and a declaration of who will have custody of any children in the case of one's death.

"It was scary to have to talk about what he would like in a burial," says Adrienne, "because you are hoping you will never have to go there until you are old and gray."

RIBBONS AND SEPARATION & r & With his departure for special training in San Diego looming, Matt and Adrienne felt it was important to give their children some symbolic reminders of their dad's return. This was especially important since the Bergs have lived in the Inland Northwest for just two years and didn't know many people. What they decided on was to personalize the popular yellow ribbon gestures of support. Not merely content with placing a magnetic sticker on their car, Matt and his children tied actual ribbons around the columns supporting the roof over their front porch and around the flagpole in the front yard.

Matt Berg made a promise to his children that they would cut the ribbons off together when he returned from the Middle East.

"Those ribbons hold a lot of influence on this household," Adrienne said the day Matt left. "It is something that we are waiting to be released from so that we can move on from here and continue living our lives."

Later that same day, Matt Berg left for six weeks of training in California, and ultimately the Persian Gulf. As difficult as that moment was, Adrienne and the kids knew they would see him before he was sent overseas. Once the training was completed, they were able to spend a few days together enjoying the warm San Diego weather and the ocean -- a nice break for Californians living in the snow-covered Inland Northwest -- before Matt left for service in the Middle East, where he supervised construction projects.

A few days later, Adrienne and the children returned to Spokane. "That day was the hardest day," says Adrienne. "I was basically prepared for my husband's deployment. I think the hardest part was flying home from California after saying goodbye to him there. I was not looking forward to going home to an empty house. Of course, there is the fear of the unknown, like not knowing if I would ever see him again."

SINGLE PARENTING & r & With Matt's overseas deployment underway in April, Adrienne and the children faced the difficulty of living an entirely new life until he returned. Bryce missed hanging out with his dad -- "building Legos with him and going to Boy Scouts." For Hannah, Matt's deployment meant she would miss "roller-blading, playing games with him and the way he made her laugh."

For Adrienne, the time apart also meant trying to find her inner handyman, or woman in this case, while assuming both parental roles. Like so many families with parents serving overseas, the Berg household was a single-parent family for nearly a year. Many of the spouses, like Adrienne, who have remained at home have developed "a new-found respect for single parents. I don't see how they do it and a work full-time job."

Adrienne's toughest challenge became "just staying here and keeping my mental wits about me." As a relative newcomer to the region, who went back to school during the fall, it was tempting to seek the comfort of her family. However, she "didn't want to run back to my parents, but you know, it would have been nice to have more support." The simple truth was that after 12 years of team parenting, the forced single parenthood left her "spread so thin" and "trying to keep myself sane," that some days it almost seemed too much.

GOOD NEIGHBORS & r & Ray and Sandy Morrison pitched in the way neighbors do, helping the Berg family survive without Matt. Like the Bergs, the Morrisons are not from North Idaho, but instead came to the region from the Tri-Cities. This being the case, they understand the isolation of not having any family nearby. Whether it was practical assistance or more moral support, Ray and Sandy made it easier for the Bergs to carry on by themselves until Matt returned. Their kindness made the lonely, difficult times a little bit easier to bear, Adrienne says.

For those new to the region, still getting accustomed to the nuances of living here, especially during the winter, it is easy to understand Adrienne's attitude about the snow: "Snow is beautiful to look at, but living in it is not -- not after living in California." Unaware of the snow tire ritual, she set off to sit in the waiting area for two hours while her tires were changed, but as so often happened this past year, "Ray thinks of everything," so before she took the car in, he called and told her "I'm going to come get you; you're not going to sit there." Thinking back about that one moment, that gesture, she says, with a smile, "He's always right there, thinking about stuff, kind of like your parents would."

When Adrienne needed someone to watch the kids if she had to go to class, or if there was an emergency, Ray and Sandy were there. When Thanksgiving came, they invited them into their home, to share the day with them.

"It would have been hard without them," says Adrienne. "They kind of became my adoptive mom and dad."

With the support of people like Ray and Sandy, as well as her in-laws, who live in Sandpoint, and especially through her faith, she became more and more confident in her own abilities to function as the head of the house. As eager as Adrienne was for Matt's return, and as hard as the year apart had been, she learned something about herself.

"I know through this year of being alone, I know I can do it. I know I'd be able to make it."

TOUR'S END & r & The waiting dragged on for nearly a year since Bryce and Hannah and their dad tied those bright yellow ribbons around the pillars supporting the front porch roof. Adrienne fretted over how the weather had faded the ribbons. "After a storm with a lot of wind," she says, "I held my breath, thinking maybe they had blown off this time -- but they stayed on."

With more than 100,000 American troops in the Middle East, the Bergs are just one of the families holding their collective breath -- waiting, hoping and praying for the safe return of their loved ones. For a growing number, the wait is in vain, as now more than 2,300 families have lost loved ones in the Middle East. A significantly larger number of families will greet physically or mentally altered husband or wives, sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, nieces or nephews when they return. Each family has a story to tell about triumphs and hardships, learning experiences, good days and bad. The lucky ones have their own guardian angels for whom they are grateful.

When Matt left, Adrienne remembered "thinking if only I could fast-forward a year and not one day would have to go by, so that my husband would not miss anything." She was unable to fast-forward their lives, of course, but on Jan. 10, 2006, she and the kids were there in San Diego to welcome Matt's unit home.

For the Bergs, the reunion story was not completed until 10 days later when Matt kept his promise to his children and cut the yellow ribbons at home. There is no certainty when all the troops will come home from the Middle East, nor is there any certainty that Matt Berg and the men and women he served with won't be called back to help rebuild the Middle East. But for now, they're home, readjusting to civilian life and getting reacquainted with the families they left behind.

POSTSCRIPT & r & The not-too-surprising coda to this story is that after returning to Hayden in late January, Matt Berg found himself without a job. He didn't feel right asking his employer to hold a position that he had only held for a short time before being called up. Unable to find any work that would support his family, he had to look for a position back in California, where he accepted a job earlier this month.

The house, which was bound together by the ribbons and Matt's promise to cut them down when he returned, is already for sale, and the Bergs are back in California looking for a new home.

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