FORT LEAVENWORTH | The baby starts to cry, and Chris Rodriguez goes to check on his son.
Moments later Chris calls out to his wife from the bedroom: “We have a situation.”
He’s been back from Afghanistan since March, and only now, nine months later, Capt. Rodriguez is finding normal again — pulling poopy diaper duty.
He came home safe and healthy, for the most part. The stress-induced hair loss has stopped, as have the premature graying and the dreams.
“They scared her a few times,” Chris, 37, says of the nightmares that frightened his wife of 12 years, Kathleen Devine, who is a former Army officer herself.
As Kathleen describes it, he’s stopped driving like a maniac, too. As a family, they’re still reintegrating, “even now,” she says.
“His unit just left three weeks ago. His mind actually was kind of still with them, as if he was going,” she said. “It’s only been in the last couple of weeks where he’s realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going.’ ”
Coming home from war is like that — slow and tricky behind closed doors after the public homecoming celebrations. Soldiers don’t just pick up where they left off. The business of getting back to family life harbors minefields all its own.Dad’s home from war, and he’s jumpy. Mom’s barking commands like she did at her troops.
Kathleen remembers coming home from Bosnia in 1996 after her first deployment. She and Chris had been married just a handful of months.
“That first Saturday home typifies the tip of the iceberg as far as reintegration and change,” recalls Kathleen, 48. “The first Saturday we started cleaning the house as we’d always done before. I did the bathroom, I did the kitchen, and then he did the upstairs.
“And I went to start cleaning something and he looked at me and said, “I don’t do it like that.’ And I just looked at him.
“Only after his multiple deployments did I realize that that was really the beginning of ‘It’s never the same.’ ”
When Army cook George McElroy and his wife, Julie, take their daughters out to eat, everyone knows where he’ll sit. The “dad spot” is where George can see the door.
Even after more than 23 years of service and four deployments to Bosnia and Iraq, switching back into his “safe mode” hasn’t gotten any easier for George.Stop reaching for your weapon. Stop eyeing strangers like they’re trying to kill you. Stop watching your back.
“You’re no longer in danger, but it’s hard to get out of that mood,” George says. “I don’t have to worry about someone shooting at me or stepping on a bomb. Over there, that’s constant, always, no matter what you do, where you go.”
As a soldier’s wife, Julie has learned to let George settle back into the groove of home at his own speed.Don’t ask too many questions about what went on over there; he won’t tell.
“It bothers me to not be able to talk about it with him, the stuff that he’s been through,” Julie says. “But I understand … and you just don’t push that issue.”
George changes with each trip overseas, and Julie says that’s the hardest part.
“Nobody’s ever the same when they come back,” she says. “Every time he’s come back I’ve been excited and ready for him to come home. But I’ve been scared, too, because I’m scared of the unknown and how we’re going to come back together as a family.”
She and George, both 40, were college sweethearts at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. After nearly two decades spent moving from Hawaii to Germany and posts in between, Julie can run the McElroy household efficiently by herself.
Right now the McElroys — George and Julie and the youngest three of their four daughters — live in a split-level in a Leavenworth subdivision full of military families.
George came back last year from his final deployment — to Iraq. The first time he came home from war — from Operation Desert Storm in the summer of 1991 — he had to figure out how to be dad-in-charge again.
“That first time he went over there, here he comes back trying to be in charge of everything again,” Julie says. “And that doesn’t work.”
“Still doesn’t work,” George adds.
“He realizes that he just can’t come in and take control of the whole situation. Even with the girls, because they’re not used to him telling them what to do,” Julie says.
In George’s mind, “Dad” meant protector, leader, the one who provides all thestuff
“But when I’m over there, I’m helpless,” George says. “I have to totally, 100 percent trust that she’s going to take care of everything. That’s a lot of work for one person.
“I come home … and now, all of a sudden, she’s running everything. You can’t just walk in the door and say, ‘OK, I’m back. This is the way it’s going to be.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
When Chris Rodriguez comes home from war, he’s ready to play — with the kids. And that used to bug his wife.
He and Kathleen have two children: 8-year-old daughter Chris and 1-year-old son C.J. They live in military housing at Fort Leavenworth, where Kathleen does media relations work.
“He would disrupt (our daughter’s) routine,” Kathleen says. “It would be OK for the first week or so. He’d get her out of school early, and they’d go and do something. But two months later he’d still be doing that and then three months later.
“And at first I got really upset. But you know, that’s another thing I had to let go. If he wanted to go pick her up early from school, take her to the movies in the middle of the afternoon, by gosh, good for him that he could do that, and I would just have to let it go. Her dad’s been gone for two and a half years of her life.”
Chris and Kathleen married in 1996, while both were stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. They built their marriage and family in the windows of time between deployments, pingponging between duty to their country and to each other.
When they had trouble conceiving a second child in a tight, five-month period between two of Chris’ deployments, they adopted C.J. Chris lucked out by catching a flight from Afghanistan on a general’s plane to be there for C.J.’s homecoming.
“I can remember one deployment, Chris came home on a Saturday or Sunday, and he was at work on Monday,” Kathleen says. “That’s how quick and how busy the unit was, already focusing on going back again and all the things that needed to be done.”
Kathleen saw that her husband returned from the war zone disconnected. While he’s away, he doesn’t want to hear about the minutiae of life back home while he’s trying to stay alive.
Chris just wanted to hear how the kids were doing, how his and Kathleen’s parents were doing.
Instead, what he heard one time from Kathleen was this:I’m going to send you a spreadsheet and I want you to go over it and I want you to send it back to me by Thursday
“And I’m like ‘Oh my God!’ ” he says.
Bills and all those other annoying details of everyday life just don’t have the same importance that they used to, he says. And finally, after more than five deployments, that’s OK with his wife.
“We’ve come to the realization that certain things that we did kind of as a team, once I started taking over those things, it’ll probably just stay that way,” Kathleen says.
“What’s important to him is if he can play with the kids, if he can just do stuff with them.”
“I guess they’re my outlet,” Chris says. “Spending time with them is my outlet. It’s going home.”
“And this little guy,” says Kathleen, hugging C.J. in his fresh, clean diaper, “just loves his daddy.”
This week we’re talking to new veterans about coming home.MONDAY:
Coming back lucky and lost.TUESDAY:
The new veteran goes to college.TODAY: Redeploying to the family. THURSDAY:
Mission: Get a date.FRIDAY: