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Wednesday, April 9

Army families keep tense vigil at home while Dad serves in Iraq

By Greg Barrett | GNS

FORT STEWART, Ga. - Each morning, 11-year-old Phillip Palomo rises as if to reveille and marches into the den. At precisely 6 a.m., he begins toggling between CNN and MSNBC to collect information for a war briefing, which he delivers promptly to his mother at 7.

``There have been 88 American soldiers killed, seven MIAs, seven POWs,'' he might say. ``We flew several sorties over Baghdad yesterday; we've fired more than 700 cruise missiles and dropped 14,000 precision-guided bombs.''

He punctuates the report with good news: ``Dad is not on TV yet.''

Which suggests Dad is not part of the casualty count.

Phillip used to sleep until 7 a.m., like his three siblings. That was before his father, a manager of a Foley's Department Store in San Antonio, joined the Army full time, was moved to Fort Stewart near the Georgia coast and then was sent to fight in the Middle East.

More than 20,000 troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division are in the deserts of Iraq, where they have fought firefights in Nasiriyah, Najaf and Karbala while leading the advance on Baghdad. On March 29, four members of the ``3rd ID,'' as it's called here, were killed by a suicide car bomber at a roadside checkpoint. Others are missing or have been captured.

Phillip's 13-year-old sister Amber can't bear to watch the TV news.

``I wouldn't want to see Daddy getting shot,'' she said.

When U.S. forces went to war, they took along the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of military family members who must soldier on despite a gripping anxiety. The fact that Chrystie Palomo is raising four children by herself is in many ways a blessing.

``I don't have time to watch TV,'' she said. ``I don't have a whole lot of time to think about the war.''

At least not until late at night when the children are asleep. It's then that TV footage showing the eerie green glare of night-vision cameras and the illuminated exchanges of violence rouse things repressed.

She was awakened recently by a nightmare in which Iraqi President Saddam Hussein forced her and other Americans to run around a table in a game that resembled musical chairs. The loser would be shot. Saddam sat at the table ``like a Roman emperor'' and laughed uproariously.

``Praise God, I won that race,'' she said.

In another dream she was walking alone in downtown Baghdad and everyone was pointing at her and glaring.

``Like they knew I didn't belong,'' she said.

Long-distance prayers

The deployment order for Sgt. Phillip Palomo, 34, sounded ambiguous - even benign:

``Movement of headquarter division ... to Kuwait and return,'' the order read. ``Effective date: 24 January 2003 until completion of mission.''

Chrystie Palomo, 33, fiddles with her gold pendant inscribed, ``I belong to a soldier,'' and ponders what those orders might mean. Will she be a single parent for six months? One year? Longer?

On Monday, Phillip Palomo, a devout Christian, called his wife from 15 miles south of Baghdad and prayed confidently with her over the phone.

In a folder titled ``If Phillip Goes to Heaven,'' Chrystie Palomo keeps important phone numbers, life insurance documents, power of attorney and her husband's will.

``I have faith. I do not have fear,'' she said stubbornly. ``I know he's coming home. I just don't know when.''

Like all wars, this one is open-ended. The spouses of the invasion of Iraq do not expect to see their mates any time soon. They survive on crumbs - the occasional letter or e-mail or, if they are fortunate, a phone call.

Two miles away, Sabrina Murphy manages her own lonely regiment. She has endured her husband's deployments before, and she understands the difficulties of time and distance.

So 10 days before Sgt. Scott Murphy left Fort Stewart for the Middle East on Jan. 28, she planned a party. The family celebrated a full rotation of birthdays. There was a big cake bearing everyone's name - Daddy, 24, Mommy, 25, Alex, 6, Dalton, 4, Zachary, 3, Noah, 2 - and one gift for each.Sabrina Murphy expects her husband to be away for as long as a year. Two years ago, when he was on a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, he was gone for six months.

``That was peace; this is war,'' she said. ``This will be longer.''

In his last letter home to his sons, a card written on the day the United States began bombing Baghdad, Murphy wrote, ``I sure hope I can make it home before you guys get out of school or at least before the start of next year.''

Before he left at 3 a.m. on Jan. 28, with Alex clinging to him and sobbing, Murphy taped two hours of children's books so his voice would be the last thing his sons heard every night. Today, he is using Scooby-Doo body wash and Tasmanian Devil toothpaste on the front lines of the war.

``It makes him feel closer to the boys,'' Sabrina explained.

The Murphys and Palomos live on small streets off Fort Stewart's Hero Road. They have plaques in their homes that read, ``Home is where the Army sends you.'' It doesn't seem to matter if it's Georgia or Iraq.

``I wouldn't change a thing,'' Chrystie Palomo said proudly. ``I would encourage him to enlist all over again.''

Her husband helps manage a 92-truck convoy that stocks the 3rd Infantry. Sabrina Murphy's husband is a cavalry scout riding in a turret ahead of advancing troops.

``He's the one with his head sticking out of the Humvee with a big ol' gun in his hands,'' Sabrina said, rolling her eyes and smiling, as if to acknowledge the crazy courage. ``Yeah, I know, kind of scary.''

When her boys ask her where Daddy is and what he's doing, she gives them the Disney version.

``He's playing in a big desert with big toys,'' she tells them.

That satisfies all but the eldest.

To show how much his brothers know about the war, Alex held his forefinger and thumb about a hair's width apart.

``They know this much,'' he said.

He moved the finger and thumb an inch apart.

``I know this much.''

War as a career

Sabrina Smith and Scott Murphy met while working at a McDonald's in Marion, Ohio. Scott sneaked from the grill to the drive-through one day and slipped Sabrina his phone number. Seven years later, they are raising four boys in a small two-story military townhouse.

There are few complaints. Just before invading Iraq, Murphy re-enlisted while in Kuwait. For risking his life on the front lines with a crew nicknamed ``the Cutthroats,'' he earns an extra $420 per month on top of a tax-free $24,690 annual salary, free rent, utilities and family medical benefits.

``He has to stay in the Army; I won't let him get out,'' his wife says. ``He'll go 25 years and retire. That will give Noah (the youngest) medical benefits through college.''

In a sandbox in the back yard, the boys play with toy soldiers and tanks and pretend they're in the desert.

``This is what Dad is playing in,'' Sabrina tells them. ``It's just a lot bigger.''

It's enough to make Alex want to enlist.

``I'm going to be a good soldier,'' he said. ``And I'm going to be safe at war.''

For now, however, it's too much to even watch.

One morning last week, Alex crawled out of bed at 5 o'clock. While his mother and three brothers slept, he braved the dark and tiptoed past the framed photo of Dad's Army platoon, down a flight of stairs and past the framed pencil drawing of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle hung in the foyer.

He settled quietly in front of the TV.

``I wanted to see what Iraq was doing to the soldiers,'' he said later. ``I know what's happening. I know about the bad guy, Saddam.''

So he watched CNN alone, looking for the distinctive four-stripe insignia of the 3rd ID and for his father's face. Within minutes, footage of bombs, fires and fresh battle scenes sent him into full retreat.

He fled from the den and hid behind the china cabinet.

``But I didn't shake,'' he said, trying to sound brave. Like Dad.