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In the Army now

A deployed reservist's wife keeps the home fires -- and a few other things -- burning.

By Tracy Sterling Bristol '80
Wife of David Bristol, U. S. Army helicopter pilot

You ain't gonna get my garden! I mentally yelled to the weeds in a high hillbilly voice, mocking Renee Zellweger's performance in Cold Mountain. Pulling wet, stubborn crabgrass with one hand and clutching a leaky hose in the other, I trudged through the flower bed, spattering my office clothes with mud. This place is too much for one person to take care of, I thought for the thousandth time since my husband left for Iraq six months ago.

David had joined the Army Reserve in 1986, several years before we married. Flying helicopters one weekend a month seemed a perfect way to satisfy a lifetime love of flying without committing to a military career. After 18 years (just two years from retirement), after squeaking past call-ups to Desert Storm and Bosnia, it was finally his turn.

Much braver and more patriotic than I, Dave was prepared to serve if the time came. When I expressed outrage over military mothers having to leave their new babies, he always had the same matter-of-fact response: "They know this isn't the Boy Scouts when they sign up."

I was strangely calm before Christmas when Dave broke the deployment news. Don't freak out, I told myself. We can get through this. A year will fly by. If you break down, the kids will break down.

Our children, ages 13 and 10, seemed to be thinking the same thing. That night during our regular bedside chat, it was Kate who comforted me.

"Don't worry, Mom," she said in a mature voice I'd never heard before. "I'll help you."

Ten-year-old Jack, whose world revolves around action figures and video games, had a more romantic notion of his father's news. "Whoa, Dad! You're gonna get that Osama bin Laden!"

Later, as reality sank in, Jack would be the one who missed his father most, when mom proved a failure at helping create a winning car for one last shot at the Cub Scout Pine Car Derby crown.

"Did you polish the axles?" Dave asked from Fort Hood. "Did you weigh the car at the Post Office? Did you put the weights at the back, as low as possible?"

"Yes, yes and yes," I responded with annoyance. Eventually I would attend a Pinewood Derby workshop and, in desperation, enlist my retired father's help, but my heart ached when the little car finished dead last time after time. I was a poor substitute for the magical Team Bristol that had honed five years of car designs as carefully as engineers in Detroit.

Going in Dave's place to the Webelos Woods weekend campout was not a problem, except that I had to drive home a few times to care for our two horses and three dogs. I returned to the campsite the final morning to find the boys staring in horror at my bedroll. I expected to see a poisonous snake there.

"Okay, guys, move it along," I told the disgusted 10-year-olds, snatching my twisted brassiere from the ground. Despite Jack's embarrassment, I think he was glad to have me around. After all, none of the dads thought to slip a teddy bear into their camper's pillowcase for secret night cuddling.

Once Dave broke the news that he was leaving, he started making preparations to make my life easier, labeling bottles of automotive oil, stocking up on air conditioning filters and writing the months on them. Together we diagrammed the elecrical fuses on a cheat sheet in the kitchen.

The Christmas holidays were spent catching up with our friends and family, having joyous reunions with virtually everyone we knew.
I jokingly dubbed Dave "George Bailey," after the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life. For two weeks, it seemed everyone Dave's life had ever touched showed up at our house. The recycling bin was so full of empty bottles of bon voyage spirits that several large additional boxes were pressed into service; I covered them with a tarp, worried that our curb resembled the back alley of a tavern.

The night before Dave left for Fort Hood, I had a recurring dream that gray light was filtering into the room and it was time for my husband to leave. I can sleep through anything, but this dream came back half a dozen times, until daylight finally crept in for real. I will never forget that enveloping feeling of cold sadness, like the work of the dementors in the Harry Potter books I had read with Jack.

For the first several weeks of separation, I found comfort in wearing Dave's shirts around the house, until my daughter pointed it out. "Mom," she said tactfully, "I know you're not into fashion, but you've got to stop wearing Dad's clothes."

I later read that sometimes people mourning the loss of a loved one will work through their grief by wearing a garment of the departed person.
I was determined to keep things as normal as possible, which meant maintaining our schedule as full as it always had been: coaching Jack's Destination Imagination team weekly at our house, driving Kate to nightly theater rehearsals 45 minutes from home and getting both kids to their complex roster of lessons.

"Are you nuts?" a friend asked.

"Yep, think so," I replied, not knowing any other way to deal.

I rose at dawn, pitched hay and mixed horse feed until time to deliver kids to school, then rushed to work, usually with hay still clinging to my clothes. Home-cooked meals became a luxury. My list of carpool helpers tripled, as there were many times when the kids had to be on different sides of town at the same time.

Stay busy, I told myself as I put makeup on at a traffic light. Just keep going. Don't look down.

Many days the news from the Middle East was so frightening I hid the newspaper from the kids. I kept a brave face and a sense of humor at work and around the family, but periodically I would push a cart around the deserted grocery store late at night with hot tears rolling down my face. Ambushes? Combat missions? Surely this was not my movie.

In the evenings, after the kids went to bed, the Internet provided an outlet for my roller-coaster emotions. Dave could e-mail several times a week, a godsend in keeping morale up, the family connection strong and the household running smoothly. Well, running.

And then there's my friend Carol.

To: Carol
Sent: January 4, 2004 9:45 p.m.
Today was my very first hubby-less day and I've already buried a dead animal. Two squirrels fell into our horses' water trough, Iccccck. I thought one had died with his beady eyes open but Kate screamed, "No,
the little one's still alive!" We pushed over the trough to drain it and the most pathetic creature hobbled to the nearest tree where we had to check on it the rest of the day. I know just how he feels.

Carol's friendship has been heaven sent. A wonderful listener, she became my online therapist and Hints from Heloise rolled into one. My e-mails to Dave relayed only the more cheerful news. I felt no need to compromise the spirits of a tired middle-aged man wearing body armor in 120-degree heat.

To: Carol
Sent: February 10, 2004 11:22 p.m.
How many Army wives does it take to change a light bulb? I have officially given up on removing the mysterious tiny tube otherwise known as a burned out halogen bulb in the kitchen. We are now enjoying "dinner mood lighting," courtesy of the floor lamp from the den.

Even on the most exhausting days, I am touched beyond words at the small kindnesses shown by friends and co-workers. Once a week, my 13-year-old neighbor mows our two acres, refusing payment of any kind. My trash cans are magically returned from the curb on pickup days. My newspaper appears by my front door. Co-workers smile and say nothing when I roll in late to work; then someone mentions the alfalfa sprig clinging to my hair.

To: Carol
Sent: March 9, 2004 10:55 p.m.
Today was strangely free of comic disaster. In fact, I have developed a rare and useful skill. I can predict, to the penny, the overseas shipping price of a care package containing a dozen packages of beef jerky, DVDs and several large containers of Gatorade powder. Really. The postal clerks are referring to me as "Karnak."
PS - Okay, I lied about the lack of disaster. Have you ever seen what a border collie can do to an ordinary bed pillow if left unattended? The contents of a single pillow have transformed the living room into a wintery wonderland. (expletive deleted)

My husband always makes the same sweet apology when he calls. "I'm sorry, honey," he tells me. "It's hardest on the people left behind." But I can't agree. I'm pretty good, really. People ask how I'm doing, and I tell them I am managing with the help of nearly every person I know, as well as a few strangers. A burnt bag of microwave popcorn is the biggest danger I've had to deal with. I try not to think too hard about the source of smoke in the background of some of Dave's recently e-mailed photos.

To: Carol
Sent: April 22, 2004 11:42 p.m.
I took the van (40,000 miles logged in one year!) to the Toyota dealer for service this morning. Only, Carol, the van IS A HONDA. I am losing it. Do you think it will be okay there? Is this like having your teeth fixed by the vet? Am I some kind of automotive bigot for thinking all Japanese cars are the same?

One annual ritual I refused to give up was the planting of a vegetable garden, despite the amount of backbreaking labor involved. You don't have time for this, I told myself. Plant it anyway, said a small irrational voice. Thank heaven I listened to that voice. The ridiculously high sunflowers and tangled vines have become my personal shrine to "The Earth is Good" and "Life Finds a Way." I have been able to repay my neighbors' many favors with fresh squash and tomatoes. And there is nothing more mind-clearing than pulling a bean from its bright green stalk.

To: Carol
Sent: May 26, 2004 11:13 p.m.
Remember the floor-to-ceiling cardboard Tiki fireplace I made for Jack's fifth grade graduation luau? Within seconds of plugging in the smoke machine, the school fire alarm started screaming. About 700 people were evacuated, including a half dozen visiting grandparents in wheelchairs. The principal is still speaking to me only because the fire marshall decided not to ticket the scores of parents parked in the fire lanes. My nine-year PTA career, up in smoke.

I used to think that people who said adversity strengthens a relationship should get jobs writing for the Lifetime network. Now I know that this is true.

My marriage has always been a good one, the envy of my friends, but it's rock solid now. I realize how fortunate I am to have married my best friend.

The kids' birthdays have quietly passed. Looking at our growing children -- Jack, his voice deepening and shoulders broadening; Kate, a beautiful, confident high school student -- I'm sad for their lost time with Dave. But these kids, who both look like small, brown-eyed copies of their father, remind me every day that a family created and bound by love is stronger than any fear.

To: Carol
Sent: June 7, 2004 11:05 p.m.
I need one more bit of advice on the rat in the garage. It finally died somewhere near the Christmas stuff, according to the stench. Should I start excavating or just let it dry into rodent jerky and wait until December to find it? PS -- Febreze is not effective on concrete.

In the early months of Dave's deployment, it would take me by surprise to hear myself referred to as an "Army wife." I felt like an imposter, waving back uncomfortably when the gate guards at the base would see the windshield sticker on my car and salute me. Real Army wives have knowledge far beyond mine. The only reason I even know that a captain outranks a lieutenant is that my high school drill team officers were set up that way.

Army wife. Me?

Having no choice, I have tried my darndest to proudly "be all that I can be."

In the Army.

Tracy Sterling Bristol '80, this magazine's designer, lives on a small, slightly weedy farm in Colleyville with her two children, two horses and three dogs, where she is counting the days until her husband returns from Iraq in March 2005. E-mail her at

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The colors of home: Military Service Flags

The service flag is a banner authorized by the Department of Defense for display by families that have members serving in the armed forces during a period of hostilities.

Also known as the “blue star banner” or the “son in service flag,” it was designed and patented by World War I Army Capt. Robert L. Queissner, 5th Ohio Infantry, who had two sons serving on the front line. The flag quickly became the unofficial symbol of a child in service.

President Woodrow Wilson became part of its history when in 1918 he approved a suggestion from the women’s committee of the Council of National Defenses that mothers who had lost a child in the war could wear a gold gilt star on the traditional black mourning armband.

This led to covering the blue star with a gold star on the service flag to indicate that the service member has died or been killed. The color of the stars is also symbolic in that the blue star represents hope and pride, and the gold star represents sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom.

During World War II, displaying the service flag became much more widespread. In 1942, the Blue Star Mothers of America was founded as part of a movement to get packages to troops overseas and also assist families that encountered hardships as the result of a son or husband serving in the war.

In 1960, Congress chartered the Blue Star Mothers of America as a veterans service organization, and in 1966 the Department of Defense revised the specifications for the design, manufacture and display of the service flag.

Information on service flags found at