The home front was a lonely place for Holly Romano when her husband, Anthony, a member of the National Guard in Maine, deployed to Iraq, leaving her with the couple’s two children.
No other wife or husband in Sanford, Maine, had bid farewell to a deploying spouse. No other person in town had her worries. No other person in town shared her concerns.
“I had one woman in the next town whose husband was with my husband,” Holly Romano said. “We talked quite a bit. I felt like no one was around.”
That is one of the differences between active-duty troops and members of the National Guard and Reserves, who have been called up for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in numbers not seen for decades. Guard and Reserve families are left behind, often alone with their thoughts and worries.
“In the [active-duty] military, they have a whole base full of families going through the same thing,” Anthony Romano said. “Our families are isolated.”
His deployment was somewhat unusual, adding to his wife’s isolation. He left in April 2003 with only 27 other members of the 133rd Engineer Battalion from throughout Maine. But they were attached to a unit from Georgia.
“When my husband left, the rest of the unit was still here,” said Holly Romano.
Her friends, she said, could not understand her sense of loneliness and fear. They treated her husband’s absence as nothing extraordinary.
“You just don’t understand what it’s like until you’ve been through it,” she said.
The Romanos’ son, Devin, 10, had his own problems.
“My son got called a liar because he said his dad was in Iraq,” Anthony Romano said.
Imagine that happening in Baumholder or Würzburg, Germany, where thousands of families sent a member to the desert.
“It’s not really anyone’s fault,” Anthony Romano said. “We kind of slipped underneath the radar.”
There is a learning process under way, he said, as the National Guard — and the Army and Air Force Reserves — learn to deal with the needs of families during deployments.
Since those 28 guardsmen returned this summer, another group from the Maine National Guard — a much larger group — has deployed. Family support centers have sprouted in the state.
Every state National Guard has some sort of family support system, but the quality is inconsistent from state to state, according to Mary Graham, senior policy adviser for the National Mental Health Association.
“We find they really vary as to how good they are and the services they provide,” she said.
Members realize this and are, for the most part, understanding of the challenge.
“They’re learning because they’ve never been through this before,” said Kenneth Merrifield, who deployed with Romano. “We don’t have the support set up like the active duty does. They’re in the infancy stage of getting it up and running.”
Kimberlee Merrifield, Kenneth’s wife, was the voice on the phone in the next town for Holly Romano.
She is a military brat, she said, so she knows what bases provide for families left behind. When her husband deployed, however, she felt alone and her worst worries would not leave her.
“I waited for someone to come in a uniform and tell me something had happened,” she said. “Every single day. When I drove to work, I cried.”
She was afraid to be away from her home in Wells, Maine. For six months, she said, she rarely left home. And when she did, she rushed back to be there in case the call came with the bad news she feared.
The North Dakota National Guard held family support meetings throughout the state, trying to limit the drive time for spouses and families as much as possible.
“We let families [set] their own schedules,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shelly Sizer, family readiness coordinator for the North Dakota guard. “We ensure that one of our staff is present at each of these meetings.”
Jill Staudinger, wife of Scott Staudinger, a North Dakota Guard member, said the time was hard when her husband was gone for more than one year to Iraq.
“Many times you just felt alone and that nobody knew how you felt,” she said. “To pick up that phone and say you need help is so hard.”