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The Rough Life of an Army Wife


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Jeannette Mulligan is married to Sergeant Clinton Mulligan of the 82nd Airborne Division. The family lives at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one of the nation's largest Army posts. Over several months, Jeannette recorded an audio journal and moments from her daily life. Her story was produced by John Biewen of American RadioWorks.

JOHN BIEWEN reporting:

Jeannette Mulligan is 40. She's from Baltimore. She and her husband Clinton have been together six years. She has a 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, then there's the two-year-old, Liam, and Olivia, who's five.

Mrs. JEANNETTE MULLIGAN (Army Wife): Watching the kids missing him is a hard thing. Olivia sometimes will say--if I talk to her and tell them--I'm always telling the kids that their daddy loves them and their daddy misses them and he's thinking about them and he's praying for them. And every once in a while she'll ask me to stop telling her that because she doesn't want to think about her daddy missing her. And at night sometimes when she says her prayers, she would always start off with, `Dear Jesus, could you tell my daddy that I love him? And this is Olivia.' And now she just skips right past that, talks to her daddy and she'll say, `Dear Daddy...'

OLIVIA MULLIGAN: Daddy, I love you so much, and I hope you can come back in five minutes.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: It's February 11th, and I am driving in my car. This is the only time I have to be alone sometimes.

BIEWEN: Jeannette has red hair cut stylishly short, her ears are pierced four times each. She and her family live in Ft. Bragg housing. Their winding street is lined with identical tan duplexes and carports. The subdivision is named Sainte-Mere-Eglise after a French town captured by 82nd Airborne paratroopers on D-Day, 1944.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: ...about a thought that just came to me was that constantly missing the spouse that's gone and not really being able to show it.

BIEWEN: It's early 2005, and Jeannette's husband, Sergeant Clinton Mulligan, is in Iraq for the second time since the war started. This time his unit left in December of '04 to provide security for the upcoming Iraqi elections.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: These stupid country songs. I get in the car and the song on the radio is `I'm missing you and nobody knows it but me.' OK? So that got me crying. But I have to get it out of my system before I get to my friend's house, because she also has small children and a husband's who is in my husband's unit. And it's kind of a sisterhood ethic, that we don't get each other started.

BIEWEN: Jeannette is active in the Family Readiness Group for her husband's battery. It's a volunteer group sponsored by the Army for spouses to stay in touch and support one another. Clinton Mulligan is in field artillery. The Army bars women from those jobs, so all of the spouses in Jeannette's Family Readiness Group are women.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: What is frustrating is hearing the crybabies, the ones that are just crying because they've got a, you know, three-, four-month deployment, or the wives who are just ballyhooing about how hard their life is. Their feelings are real. I understand that. They are overwhelmed, they're frustrated, they're angry, they're sad, they're whatever. But when you become a military wife, you know what you're getting into. You're signing up for the military just as much as your spouse is. And my husband likes to tell the kids, `Suck it up and drive on, soldier,' and that's kind of how I feel with some of the women. You know, `Come to me when you're just overwhelmed and I will give you a hug and I will hold your hand and take you through the steps and I'll watch your kids if you're sick and you can sleep on my couch,' and that sort of thing. But, you know, know when enough is enough. When you're strong enough mentally or physically or emotionally, get back on the horse. We can't afford that luxury of just letting it all go to pot. We have people that depend on us. And I don't know. That's just something I was thinking of.

It's Friday, February 18th. I'm on the computer, and I just got a message from the colonel over in Iraq that one of our guys was killed.

BIEWEN: Just a week after she talked with frustration about the crybabies, Jeannette finds herself struggling to cope.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: I just looked at the official letter and just was in shock and just stared and thought to myself something I could never utter to another person, and that is, `Will the next one--will the next round hit my husband, hit my soldier?' But then I just have been looking for him every day online, on the Instant Messenger, but they're having trouble with their computer and I keep saying, `Honey? Honey?' and typing in, `Where are you?' and, you know, I'm patriotic and I'm supportive of our president and I'm supportive of our military, but right now my true feelings are that I've had enough. I've had enough of this war. This family needs their daddy, and I need my husband. I've had it with him being gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: Today is Friday. It is Good Friday. My husband is coming home on Easter morning at sunrise. And now I'm just making muffins for my clan, but later, we'll be making cookies and stuff for the soldiers for when they get off the plane.

BIEWEN: Jeannette Mulligan has almost made it through her husband's second deployment to Iraq. This time she was a single mother for four months. Josiah(ph), her 13-year-old son from her first marriage, did help with his little sister and brother.

(Soundbite of basketball bouncing)

JOSIAH: Sometimes I clean up their messes, or if she just needs time, I usually take the kids and watch a movie or something, do something with them so that it'll give her time to relax.

BIEWEN: Josiah shoots baskets in a park near his family's home on Ft. Bragg. He has dark hair and wears a purple football jersey. He plans on a career as an NFL quarterback, not a soldier or a basketball player.

(Soundbite of ball clanging off backboard)

JOSIAH: Nope, not even close.

BIEWEN: Josiah's stepfather, Sergeant Clinton Mulligan, came home from Iraq once before, a year ago, after spending seven months there with his field artillery unit.

JOSIAH: Last time when he came back from the deployment--I used to be in judo, I used to take judo, and it's at a police training center. And when he got out of the car, he heard them at the range--Boom, boom, boom!--and he was, like, in the mode, like, he was, like--he snapped into it. He thought someone was going to, you know--but, yeah, we're just trying to get back to normal and, you know, hope he doesn't have any, like, problems, like, mental problems about--thinking about the war or whatever, just try to get him to think more about home and family.

(Soundbite of basketball bouncing)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: OK. Are you guys excited?

O. MULLIGAN: I'm not excited about my dress.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: You're not excited about your dress? Livy(ph), you look beautiful. Daddy's going to want to see his girl looking like girls and his boys looking like boys.

It's Sunday morning, March 27th, and 6:30. And we are driving like maniacs, cannot let him get off that plane without seeing us and all the hard work we put into these signs.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BIEWEN: It's a cool, gray Easter morning back at Pope Air Force Base next to Ft. Bragg. Several hundred soldiers come off a commercial jumbo jet on to the tarmac. They're in desert camouflage and red berets, rifles strapped to their backs. They march in formation into the big steel shed where they said goodbye to their families four months ago.

(Soundbite of band playing; crowd noise)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: Jeannette and the three kids wait behind a rope line with a couple of Jeannette's best friends. Their husbands are also somewhere among the identical-looking soldiers standing in straight lines.

(Soundbite of band playing)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: Do you see Daddy? Do you see Daddy anywhere?

BIEWEN: As a 20-piece Army band plays, tears stream down Jeannette's face. For a few moments, she marches in place.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man: All right. Fall out. Take the rope down. Come on out and meet them.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause; crowd noise)

Mrs. MULLIGAN: Take the rope down, honey. OK. You guys keep an eye on each other. OK? I don't see him.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

BIEWEN: After a long minute, Clinton Mulligan sneaks up and embraces his wife from behind.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: Oh! Oh!

(Soundbite of crowd noise; drink being poured)

LIAM MULLIGAN: Mommy, stop!

Sergeant CLINTON MULLIGAN (82nd Airborne): Watch out. Watch out.

I'm just happy to be back and seeing the kids and floatin' around on cloud nine.

BIEWEN: During this deployment, Sergeant Mulligan's battery was mostly in Baghdad and Mosul guarding forward operating bases. He says it was more boring than frightening. This probably won't be his last tour in a war zone.

Sgt. MULLIGAN: For right now I see myself staying in the military for about 20 years. I like to think of myself as being hard-core. I like to better myself.

BIEWEN: Clinton sees the military as a good way to support a family and a mission. His father was a Navy man. Clinton says he grew up being taught the value of sacrifice.

Sgt. MULLIGAN: And that the way the universe works is what you give out you're going to get back tenfold. So I try and give, and so far it's been coming back to me pretty nicely. So--I mean, look around. What? A Surround sound, a big TV, you know, a car, family, kids, a big house and everything that I could possibly want, you know?

BIEWEN: A sergeant at Clinton's level earns about $26,000 a year, plus combat bonuses, health coverage and free housing on post. Jeannette says she likes the job security. Still, marrying a soldier took a lot of getting used to even though she grew up in a military family.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: I know my dad had told me when I got married that on the ID card where it says `Property of the United States Army,' they're not talking about the card; they're talking about the soldier on that card. And my dad told me I had to stop thinking like a civilian because...

BIEWEN: Jeannette says she supports her husband's career. She wants to help him relax after his time in a war zone, but she needs a break, too.

Mrs. MULLIGAN: The first day that I got to sleep in and the kids didn't wake me up and Daddy had let the dogs out and fed them and fed the kids and changed diapers and did that whole little morning thing, it was just a small thing, but, boy, did it make a world of difference. Sometimes when you're strong, you don't realize how much you're carrying until you're not carrying it anymore, until somebody comes up alongside you and says, `Hey, let me take part of that.'

BIEWEN: Jeannette takes comfort in Clinton's presence for now, but her story is likely to repeat herself. Sergeant Mulligan's unit is almost sure to leave again for Iraq or Afghanistan within a matter of months.

For American RadioWorks and NPR News, I'm John Biewen.

LUDDEN: That report is part of a documentary, "Married to the Military," by American RadioWorks and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. For more, visit our Web site, npr.org. American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.