Faces of War
By Beth Schwartzapfel
(page 1 of 4)
With a mom or dad deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, sons and daughters step up to fill their boots on the ground.
Jeff Kurtis is a man with the kind of ruddy good looks you might associate with Father Knows Best: closely cropped brown hair parted on the side, bright blue eyes, thick eyebrows and a five o’clock shadow. His brood, too, is like a band of model citizens. His wife, Bonnie, is a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s four children: Stephanie, eighteen, Gabrielle, fourteen, Zachary, nine, and Nathaniel, three. In 2005, when Jeff, a Captain in the 103rd Field Artillery of the Army National Guard, deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, the family knew they would have to stick together more than ever.
When Bonnie got the call that Jeff was going to deploy for a total of fourteen months, she says,“We weren’t sure what the next year was going to bring. But we knew we were going to have lots of adventures and make the most out of it.”
It’s almost impossible to know how many Rhode Islanders are deployed at any given time. A spokesperson for the Department of Defense says that the home addresses of servicemembers deployed overseas are not data they compile — and thus it’s even more difficult to find out how many children get left behind when they go. Laura Paton, the state youth coordinator for the Rhode Island National Guard, says her program worked with more than 1,000 kids last year, which provides something of a ballpark figure — at least a minimum.
“We hear a lot about nightmares these kids are having,” says Paton, “withdrawing from their friends, acting out in anger. We see kids being angry at their parent for leaving, angry at the war itself, angry at the military.” Many experience anxiety; some can name what the anxiety is —“I’m worried about dad” — while others simply find themselves more nervous or less focused than usual. Some children step up to the challenge, trying new things out of necessity and finding they like it, or are good at it. “We do all our own stuff now,” Gabrielle says. After a year of killing bugs, changing light bulbs, navigating the computer’s ins and outs, and doing other “dad stuff,” she’s a lot more independent now.
No matter how they respond to their parents’ absence, though, the Army’s maxim about their servicemembers’ kids is true: “Kids Serve Too.” “I think they go through more than the husband and wife does,” reflects Bonnie. “Because they don’t ask for it. We make the decision, and they live with our decision.”
To find out more about their lives, we interviewed several children whose parents were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. These are their stories.
Stephanie Kurtis, eighteen
twelfth grade, Aquidneck Island Christian Academy
My birthday was just a hard day. And so then this beautiful pink rose came in — the guy delivered it — and after I read the card, I started crying. It was a nice surprise. I was just missing dad. It was just one of those days. I think we always missed him, but there were some times that were particularly hard.
We always thought about him, but we knew he was okay. We knew he wasn’t going to get hurt or anything. I think just holidays and stuff, and birthdays, and the news. We just had to trust God that he’d be safe. We can’t do anything sitting here. We know he’s well trained and he’s smart and he’s not going to do anything stupid.
I think he felt he had a duty to go, to his country, and also — I forget whose quote it was, but it says, ‘If there’s trouble, let me be the one to go to war, instead of my son having to go to war later for it.’ So I think he did it out of love for his country and for his family. And he wanted to go. He was excited about it, and he just wanted to get the job done and be there for his guys.
We still are very, very proud of him. We tell everybody how proud we are of him. We have stuff on our lockers at school: “I’m proud of my dad,” “US Army,” “Go Army.” We have t-shirts and jackets and magnets on the car and everything that say “Support the Troops.”
Dad left a bunch of messages on my cell phone before he left, like just, he’d just be joking or pulling my leg or something, and so every single message he ever left me, I saved. So sometimes at night if I missed him, I’d play them back and start laughing.
I couldn’t get a job, which is something I really wanted to do so I could save up for college, but instead I put college off for a little bit. I think I’m taking a year off, and I’m going to work and try and save some money, and then visit some colleges. ’Cause while dad was gone, I couldn’t really look at colleges. I didn’t apply, I wasn’t really — I had to just focus on getting my schoolwork done, and graduating and stuff. So now that he’s here he can help me, and we can go visit colleges and stuff. I’m interested in law or something with law enforcement. I was going to get my license on my eighteenth birthday, but I couldn’t go to driver’s ed because mom was the only driver, and she couldn’t take me to the classes because she had the rest of the kids and stuff.
People every day are giving their lives up, are really joining together to try to accomplish a good thing, and people here in America, they go about their everyday lives and they don’t ever think about it. And it’s not something we should think about and be upset about all the time, but it’s good to just have a respect and a reverence and just remember that I’m here because somebody else gave their life. Because everybody is over there for me. Helping me. So when I’m at school every time I raise the flag, I just think about that.
Zachary Kurtis, nine
third grade, Aquidneck Island Christian Academy
One time I wrote him a letter: ‘I hope you don’t get shot.’ He’s in a war, and usually almost everybody gets shot in a war.
We couldn’t do the science fair because he mostly really helped us out on that. Because when I was in first grade, I did black widow, and he helped me out on that a lot. And this year, I wanted to do king cobra, but I couldn’t because he wasn’t there.
On Christmas, my dad always wanted a big, nice tree. My mom always wanted a Charlie Brown tree — on “Charlie Brown,” remember when he gets a terrible tree and all the needles are falling off? That’s kinda the one my mom wants. So when we got a tree, it was only like that big. I could literally carry it up and throw it. And my mom says when we’re done hanging up all the ornaments, then it would look like one big, huge ornament since it was so thin and so small.
Sometimes we talked on the phone two days in a row, but that was kind of rare. Sometimes we only got to talk to him for one minute because he was really short on time. Or maybe it was like midnight for him, because he would stay up just to talk to us.
Maybe he went there to help out the children and to try to keep them safe and get rid of all the terrorists that are trying to bomb us and hurt the children. Because they put hand grenades on the children. They don’t care if they kill their people; they just want to get rid of us.
Our friends and family says, ‘It’s going to come quickly!’ I was like, ‘No it’s not.’ When he came home, I says, ‘Why didn’t you come home earlier?’ Sometimes I made jokes about it. Like, I could have gone in your bag. At the end of the year, I was still really mad at him — why’d he want to go if he loved me? I didn’t really understand that.