Faces of War
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.
Sergeant Steven Gill deployed to Tallil, Iraq, with the 1207th Transportation Company of the Rhode Island National Guard in July 2006. His wife, Shannon Gill, expects him home in September 2007 “unless they extend him, which hopefully they don’t,” she says. “A lot of the guys that have gone over there expecting to go home a certain day, and then they extend them for a few more months without warning.” Shannon has two children, Brianna, fifteen, and Brian, eleven, from a previous marriage; the three of them share the same round face and dimples. Shannon and Steven married six years ago; he has been a father to Brian and Brianna ever since. The family lived in North Providence until Sergeant Gill left; then Shannon, Brian and Brianna moved in with Shannon’s mom in Pascoag.
Brian Latendresse, eleven
fifth grade, Steere Farm Elementary School, Pascoag
He liked video games, so we would play together and stuff. One time, we stayed up until 3 a.m., trying to beat a mission on “Conflict: Vietnam.” It was just kind of easier having him there because it was more funner. Also we went golfing a couple of times, and I got to drive the cart around.
There’s nobody around here to help me with guy stuff. Like why you grow armpit hair. So I can’t talk to anybody, really, about it.
My teachers know that he’s away. Not a lot of my friends know, though. I told three of my friends and that’s it. Because they think they’re better than everybody. And they’d probably think that my dad’s just a truck driver. It kind of makes me angry. On the other hand, I know my dad’s doing something good. So it’s kind of back and forth. It just feels weird. Because a lot of times, I don’t want to talk about it. Because sometimes I don’t like why he’s over there. And sometimes it’s good he’s over there. It kind of gets confusing.
You wonder if he’s okay. Because you hear every day that there’s car bombs and everything. And that there’s people being blown up and everything else. And it’s kind of scary. He told us that there’s little kids running around with bombs strapped to them, with AK-47s, and it’s really scary. People don’t realize how much they’re risking their lives. I feel really proud that he is doing this for us.
Brianna Latendresse, fifteen
ninth grade, Burillville High School
When he left, it was kind of like — we didn’t want him to go. But he had to go. It didn’t actually feel real until the day he left. It was sad. Everybody was crying. But I tried. I didn’t cry. I was teary-eyed, but I didn’t cry. I’m not good at showing emotions.
We used to go bowling a lot. That was his favorite. He loved to bowl. We joined a league, and we used to go all the time. We haven’t been bowling since he’s been gone.
Moving to Pascoag was difficult. I have to share a room with my brother. We had to change schools. I told a few of my friends, but I don’t want everybody to know. I don’t want them to feel bad for me. Some people have their own opinions about people being over in Iraq and stuff like that. I want them to be over there, because at least I know that we’re protected. And 9/11 can’t happen again. Well, it can, but it’s not likely to. And then other times, I think of all the people that are dying over there, and it’s — sometimes I think it’s not worth it for them to be over there, dying, not over here, at home, with their family.
The other day I was at Walgreens, and there was this guy, and he had a sticker on his bumper that says, ‘Pull out of Iraq—there should be no war.’ It was kind of funny because me and my friend had Toby Keith, “American Soldier,” on, and the guy came out of Walgreens, and we blasted it, and started screaming at him. If they don’t want them to be over there, then why are they here? If they want to be free and stuff, well you have to pay a price for that.
My dad says, ‘You gotta get As in class! You gotta pass, or else you’re not getting a car next year!’ And it’s like, how can I pass when you’re gone? Because he used to help me with my math homework a lot. Because he was really smart with math — he could get it in a second. And now it’s hard. And I’m trying not to think about it, so I can try to get my work done so I can get the stuff that I want. I want to make sure he comes back, and I’m doing what he told me to do. And then other times, I worry about it and my grades plummet. When he first left, the first quarter, my grades were really bad. They were like Fs and Cs and stuff. I want to do my work, but then something pops in my head. And then I start to worry about what he’s doing. Like when he’s on a mission, or something, then that’ll distract me with my work and stuff like that. Other times, it’s just, I think of something we did, and then I think he’s not here anymore, so it distracts what I’m trying to do. Like the fun times that we had. Like Christmas morning and stuff like that, when he’s like the biggest child, and he’ll come and jump on my bed and wake me up, before I was even ready to get up.
He can be the strictest person you’ll ever meet. Now I know that he was strict because he wanted me to get my best education. He didn’t really get a good education when he was in school. He quit school. And he wants me to finish my high school, get my diploma, go to college, and all that stuff.
The hardest thing is not having a father figure around. He’s always been my father figure because my father hasn’t been around. And with him not here, it’s just like I have my mother, but sometimes I’d like to have my father here too.
Lieutenant Colonel Denis Riel deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar from April through September of 2005 where he was commander of the 143rd Aerial Port Squa-dron in the Air National Guard. He now works full time as the Public Affairs Officer for the Air National Guard. Garrett Riel, the youngest of Lieutenant Colonel Riel’s three sons, lives with his mother in Lincoln. I met Garrett in Lieutenant Colonel Riel’s office at the National Guard Headquarters in Cranston. The alt-rock band O.A.R. was blasting from Garrett’s iPod; his dark hair curled out from under his backward-turned baseball cap.
Garrett Riel, seventeen
twelfth grade, Lincoln High School
I really didn’t think about it, about his being part of the Air Force, working at Quonset. I really didn’t think he was going to have to go. He told me, some of his guys had to go, he felt bad, but I didn’t know if he was ever going to have to go or not. It just didn’t cross my mind. Then he told us he was going, and I was like, wow. Then it really sunk in that he was leaving. We were scared. At the airport, it was not cool when we had to say bye. Before it was like, wow, my dad’s leaving for five months. Something could happen. But no tears hit. But once we got to the airport, everyone was crying and sad, like, I hope he’s okay, I hope nothing happens. I worried, but he told us, ‘I’ll be OK. I’ll hang in there. Don’t worry about me. Just get your stuff done.’ Usually when he says that, I trust him. He’s a pretty smart guy.
Five months away — five and a half months — plus he’s my hockey coach, so we’re together all winter long. Because high school hockey is like mornings, afternoons, meetings and games on weekends. So we’re together all the time. I wasn’t going through a tough time, but it’s definitely different, not having your father around. Knowing he’s in the middle of the war.
He’d call us. He couldn’t call us much but we emailed a lot. He would tell us his day-by-day plan. ‘110 degrees out at night, with all my equipment on.’ And one email was funny, I saved it. He says, everyone came down with the stomach flu, a stomach virus, and the crapper, it’s a hundred yards away, so everyone’s racing for it, running. That’s funny. I could picture that.
I didn’t even have my license yet, so it was tough. Summer hockey, he’ll usually help coach the team. Or he’ll just bring me everywhere. He usually pays for hockey, and he lives in Burrillville, so it would be tough to go to his house, to my stepmom, get money, and then go to hockey and pay. Or get to hockey. So it was kind of awkward at times. My dad would email me, ‘Did you go to hockey today?’ I’d be like ‘Yeah,’ but I didn’t.
At one point it was kind of like a nice break because he’s a little stubborn. But when he’s away you start to miss him. Hanging out with him is different than hanging out with your mom. It’s better when he’s around, because every time he’s there, he’ll come hang out with the friends, and everyone likes him.
He says it was for us. Everyone is along the same lines — defend your country — but it’s also for your family. Even for his guys. He tells us all the time, sending guys over there — it’s the worst feeling in the world. But when he gets them back, he feels good. But he’s always gotta send out more. He’s like, ‘If I’m going to send them, then I’m going to go.’ I’m proud of him. I think it was a pretty loyal thing to do. But I don’t really agree with the whole war. I don’t know in detail what it’s about, but I know he doesn’t really agree with it, and I don’t really agree with it. I’m proud of him for going, because I think it was the right thing to do, but I don’t think the war is really the right thing.
I want to get into the Air Force. I want to be MP [military police]. I want to go to college, be a police officer, kind of follow the footsteps of my dad. While I’m in the Air Force, I want to go to college. I’m sure when I get into the military, which will be about six months from now —July, I turn eighteen — I’ll ask him for a lot of advice. I’m kind of following in his footsteps already because he’s shown me a good way. He’s definitely a good role model.
Staff Sergeant Cheryl Irving deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, as a team leader for a military police platform with B Battery, 103rd, from February 2004 through April 2005. As a single mother, she had to make arrangements for her two children, Valerie, fourteen, and Mitcael, twelve, while she was deployed. Mitcael stayed with Irving’s mother in Providence, and Valerie moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to live with Irving’s sister, Vanessa. Valerie finished her sixth grade year in Flagstaff, but ultimately the adjustment was too difficult. Valerie and her aunt moved together back to Providence for the start of Valerie’s seventh grade year.
Valerie White, fourteen
ninth grade, Toll Gate High School, Warwick
There was one day she sat us both down and goes, ‘I have a chance of going to Iraq,’ and, I was like, ‘Stop joking!’ I didn’t really believe her. I just didn’t want that — usually when you hear that someone’s going to Iraq, you’re thinking that they’re going to end up getting hurt. And I didn’t want to believe that that was going to happen.
I started my sixth grade year at St. Mary Academy-Bay View. And then it wasn’t even halfway through the — I think I just got my first report card, and I had to go fly to Arizona and stay with my aunt. It was really hard making friends over there. I didn’t want to tell anybody that my mom was away. If I was to tell somebody, they would be telling everybody, then everybody would be wanting to be my friend and everything. I just wanted them to know the real me. I thought that they were going to have a lot of pity on me.
I was worried about her on a daily basis. From the beginning of the day — because usually in the beginning of the day, you see your mom, waking you up and everything. From the beginning of the day, I realized that my mom’s not going to be there waking me up and telling me, ‘It’s time to go to school! ’Til the end of the day, when she usually has to yell at me to go to bed. No offense to George Bush, but I used to really hate on George Bush a lot. Because I used to go, ‘Well, that isn’t fair. Why doesn’t he just go over there and fight? He was the one who declared war.’
I think I acted out in the beginning, when I first moved to Arizona. But then, once I came back here, I got better. But it was still times I just flipped out. I would give a whole bunch of attitude to all the adults. Basically I felt isolated. I think later I realized it. Before, I thought that’s how a person’s supposed to feel when their parents go. When I moved back to Rhode Island, I told people that my mom was in Iraq. They helped me a lot. Because if I didn’t have friends like them, I don’t think I would have done that well. They kept me in check, made sure I never flipped out to my mom and my aunt. Whenever I would have trouble in school, they would be like, ‘Don’t freak out, I’ll help you. I know you have trouble in this, and I want you to make sure that your mom’s proud.’
We used to chat on the Internet a lot. We talked on the phone at least three times a week. As soon as she comes on the phone, ‘How was school? Are you guys doing good in school?’ She is really hard when it comes to school. Most of the time we would ask ‘How is it out there? What you’ve been doing? Shoot anybody?’
Before my mom left, I took everything for granted. Everything that she bought, I would give her attitude because this person got that thing, I wanted that. Then when my mom came back with her stories, I was like, wow, that’s not right how I treat my mom, how all these people, they just don’t get what we get. Half the stuff, they don’t even get a quarter of the stuff. They don’t even get shoes, they don’t even have socks, they don’t have shirts. It’s just so upsetting, just thinking about that.
And I stopped doing that as much as I did before. I’m trying my best to change how my ways are. I really wish that I could change the world. When she came back and told us all these stories, it just really made me think, what can I do?
It’s not easy. You don’t have to be a strong person, just be strong within the heart. I had to learn to be strong. I did it by family, friends, and just normal people. They might not even know, they helped me out anyway. Just hearing them say, ‘God bless’ makes me so happy because there’s a lot of people can be ignorant and not even care. Even now, when people come up, they see my mom in uniform, they’re like, ‘Thank you so much.’ Every time someone says that, my mom puts on this big smile.
I adore my mom. She’s my idol. She’s like the Beyoncé of everybody. I missed copying her style, wearing her clothes and getting in trouble for it. I missed going to the mall with her. I just missed hanging out with her. She’s a very powerful person. Not only on the outside, with her big muscles, but on the inside too. She didn’t get scared. A lot of people, a lot of parents would freak out. But my mom, she kept her cool.