CLARKSVILLE, Tenn., 23 November 2003 — The tan combat boots were back on the porch where they belonged, near a soccer ball and toy truck. After seven months, Army Staff Sgt. Dwayne Stone had come home from Iraq to see his wife and son and a 5-month-old baby girl he had never held.
But on his first night back at the roomy brick rancher, after the children were asleep, Deiry Stone cried as the couple lay under a flowery comforter. In two weeks, her husband would have to go back to the war zone, and she dreaded it already.
Stone is among the thousands of US soldiers being given 15 days of rest and relaxation under a morale program the army says could cost up to $770 million a year. The biggest such effort since the Vietnam War, it seems partly intended to mollify frustrated military families. The soldiers’ brief taste of life at home has offered a fresh reminder that those sacrificing the most in the country’s war on terrorism are the soldiers who put their lives on the line, and their stressed family members, who have kept households running during the long absences.
In fact, several dozen soldiers have failed to return from leave so far, said army spokesman Joe Burlas, though he said some may have simply missed flights.
For the Stones, the chance to be together was a gift, one not available to many families in this army town near the Kentucky border and Fort Campbell. But as their time together would show, the joy wasn’t pure. They bickered at times over how to make the most of the visit. They had unwelcome surprises that promised to separate them yet again later. And as they got reacquainted, they did so against a ticking clock. The more comfortable they felt, the less time they had. The end of their long-awaited reunion always loomed. From the start there was an undercurrent of tension despite the hugs, kisses and laughter. Deiry, who is 23, wanted her 31-year-old husband to be more outgoing, more like he was before his unit of the 101st Airborne Division left Kentucky for Kuwait on March 1. “He’s not open,’’ she confided the day after he got home, a worried expression on her face. “He’s been good to me, but he just used to be more emotional. Maybe he’ll come around in the next two weeks. It’s kind of scary.’’
Stone, watching cartoons in the living room with his 3-year-old son, Dillion, admitted he was holding back a bit. Told that his wife was fretting over his behavior, he said he couldn’t help it. “When you’re non-emotional for seven months, it just doesn’t come,’’ he said. “It’s not that you don’t have feelings — you don’t share them.’’
Stone’s unit no longer camps in dusty, empty buildings as it did in the war. Home is a house with marble floors in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. Soldiers have hot meals, showers, Internet access, air-conditioning and satellite television that carries Monday Night Football. But his job is as risky as ever. He oversees two gun trucks that escort convoys along dangerous roads. At other times, he drives to villages and meets with elders in an effort to help win the peace. The closest call he has had involved a potential showdown with two men brandishing AK-47 rifles; the gunmen ran. But in a separate incident, one of his fellow soldiers lost an arm in a roadside bomb attack.
When the time came for Stone’s 15 days of vacation, the army did not simply turn him loose. Partly in response to several domestic-violence killings committed last year at Fort Bragg, N.C., by veterans of the war in Afghanistan, soldiers now go through briefings to ease the transition, even for a short leave, said the army’s Burlas.
Stone sat through four safety sessions that reminded him, among other things, not to drink and drive. He also heard from his commander, the chaplain and a sergeant major. They all told him to expect changes at home: More independence from his wife, less obedience from his children.
“Things are going to be different,’’ he was told.
Stone quickly noticed that his wife had grown more self-reliant, though he said it didn’t bother him. But almost right away he moved to reassert himself as an authority figure for Dillion. “Hang that up,’’ he said after the boy dropped a jacket on the floor.
When Dillion’s thumb found its way yet again into his mouth, Stone issued an ultimatum: “If I see it wet one more time, you’re going to your room, OK?’’ At one point Dillion whimpered about something, and his father asked, “Will you use your man’s voice?’’ Then he thought aloud that his son “hangs around girls too much.’’
One advantage the Stones said they had as a couple was an ability to communicate. They learned it the hard way when, a month after marrying in 2001, they sought counseling because of a clash in their personalities, which are as different as their appearances.
He is a Kentucky farm boy with blue eyes, angular features and a wise-cracking, laid-back demeanor. He keeps a pinch of chewing tobacco behind his lower lip. She is a native of Panama with full lips, big, dark eyes and a tendency for giddiness. When she gets excited, the result can be a piercing screech. Both, however, have a built-in understanding of military life. He is a career soldier who joined at 19 when his first wife got pregnant, and he realized construction did not pay enough in winter to feed a family.
She grew up in an army family and has known many deployments. Her father, 1st Sgt. William Karpowecz, has spent about 20 years in the army and is the top noncommissioned officer of Charlie Company in Stone’s battalion.
She understood when her husband chose to go off to a war he could have avoided. Stone had orders to attend Special Forces training school in March, but he never seriously considered sitting out the Iraq war. He likened his training-filled army career to a decade of attending basketball practice, and he was not about to miss the “big game.’’
Deiry hopes her son will choose a different career, just as her father was initially disappointed when she chose a military life by marrying a soldier.
In his first days at home, Stone was content mostly to cocoon with his family. He wrestled with Dillion, who had been told all this time his father was at work, and rocked little Deseray, who was the reason his comrades chose him for a coveted R&R slot. And he held hands and snuggled with Deiry.
His first night home, the family piled into their black Ford Explorer and headed to the new Ruby Tuesday restaurant. It was a typical suppertime scene. Stone ate his first rack of ribs in a long while. But he wasn’t home, not all the way. He spoke often of the war and his buddies and the IEDs, or “improvised explosive devices’’ — homemade bombs that lie hidden on Iraqi roads. Most Iraqis seem glad the army is there, he maintained, but he gets “heavy eyes’’ from some.
Stone had a couple of scary moments during the war, although “scary’’ is a word he does not use. One came before dawn April 2, when an Iraqi missile landed less than a mile away. Stone, who was outside the battalion command tent when the sky turned red from the strike, screamed “Incoming!’’ and yelled at everyone to put on their full chemical suits as a precaution. A few days later, in Najaf, Stone and other soldiers were standing in a room filled with guns and grenades that belonged to the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein’s paramilitary force, when something started to beep. He was the first to react. Fearing it was a bomb, he started yelling, “Everyone out! Get out!’’
In early April he was assigned to the gun truck company and was involved in the attack that killed two of Saddam’s sons, Odai and Qusai, in July in Mosul. If anything, life seems more dangerous now, he said, because he cannot tell who is the enemy. No matter the mission, he always braces for a bomb blast. “Every time you get in the vehicle, pretty much the first thing you do is sit and talk about it,’’ he said on his first night home. “And hope for the best.’’
It was later that night that Deiry’s tears began to flow. She can pinpoint when the visit first felt completely normal to her, when she finally felt calm. They were on an airplane bound for Florida on his seventh day back, and her husband started goofing around the way he always has.
It was a huge relief, yet it bothered her that his trip home was already half over.
The Florida excursion had been her idea. She thought it would be fun to surprise Stone’s mother, Lola, and his other relatives in the Lakeland area. It worked. His mother said she thought she was dreaming when she opened the door that night and saw her son. Deiry Stone had spent months preparing for her husband’s return even if he did not find out he was homeward bound until Sept. 27. Stone had wanted to spend time with his immediate family, maybe play golf. But his wife insisted on sharing him with others. Now, as they spent a relaxing weekend in Florida with his mother and siblings, everything seemed fine. As the days went by, the Stones received one unwelcome surprise by e-mail. Because he is being promoted to sergeant first class, he would have to spend six weeks training in Fort Benning, Ga., soon after he gets back from Iraq, probably in February.
“Can you believe it?’’ Deiry said. “I’m not great with it. I can’t lie. It’s really hard on me. But neither one of us has a choice.’’
The e-mail was a rude awakening as well that their 15 days were running out. It was Wednesday now, and they had three days left.