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War wives often share husbands’ politics

There is little doubt where most military families in New Hampshire stand on the upcoming election. Polls show that two-thirds of them favor President Bush over Sen. John Kerry.
Friends, from left, Laura Robischeau, Jennifer Rowan, Dawn Cameron and Shona Emery of New Hampshire all have husbands who are serving in the military overseas.
Friends, from left, Laura Robischeau, Jennifer Rowan, Dawn Cameron and Shona Emery of New Hampshire all have husbands who are serving in the military overseas.Michael Powell / The Washington Post
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Shona Emery, short and blond, a mother of four whose youngest most often sleeps curled beside her in bed, wakes up at 1:40 a.m. and pads to the computer. She taps out an e-mail to her husband, Jesse.

"Hey babe."

Jesse's answer pops up two seconds later on her screen. "Hey babe. I am leaving for the airport in 5 minutes."

"Cool. Running a little late?"

"I got delayed already, car bomb near the front gate of the airbase. It's clear now though."


"I love you," he writes.

"Love you," she responds. "Be safe."

"I will," he writes, "I will."

Shona's life plays like that now. She drops the kids off at school, hauls groceries at Shaw's Supermarket, and handles the play date and soccer game and breakfast-lunch-dinner regimen. Then she catches a snatch of AM radio or cable news and hears about another soldier killed and she sucks in her breath and waits to hear whether the attack occurred near her husband's base.

Her feel for the geography of Iraq matches that of a long-haul truck driver from Basra. Her husband is a corrections officer who now lives in the 110-degree heat of the Iraqi desert. He rides shotgun on the truck convoys that cut across the horizon like video-game targets for jihadi snipers and roadside bombers.

New Hampshire ranks second per capita in the percentage of National Guard members serving in Iraq. These soldiers — diesel mechanics, auto parts managers and school counselors — have left behind families in states — such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that are divided with almost mathematical precision between Republican and Democrat, hawk and dove, President Bush and John F. Kerry. The families may or may not swing an election. But there is little doubt where most stand. Polls show that two-thirds of them favor Bush.

Shona is no different. She may absorb a grim vision of war in her early-morning e-mail exchanges with her husband, but she remains a ready vote for Bush, even if Jesse does another tour.

"My husband's a hunter and a warrior," she says. "He's totally pro-Bush."

Shona works the home front, along with her friends Dawn Cameron, Laura Robischeau and Jennifer Rowan. They are war wives with 12 children among them, and they gathered one afternoon last week at the Robischeau home, in the Merrimack River valley. A visitor is instructed to look for the 12-foot-wide American flag constructed of red-white-and-blue plastic cups in the front yard. Four vans are parked outside with a dozen yellow ribbons affixed.

Their conversation winds through gales of laughter and chatter before turning to the war. They keep careful track of the New Hampshire men killed in action; their dread is that an official military car might pull up in their driveway. Shona's and Laura's husbands have gone temporarily deaf in one ear from the concussive explosions of roadside bombs.

"Do I get nervous?" asked Jennifer, a former soldier and a realist. "Am I ever not nervous?"

Laura leans forward on her couch. "You wake up in the morning and you pray your husband made it through the night. Is he eating? Is he sleeping? Is my guy okay?"

In a society where income and stock options often rule, these women measure their working-class men by a different standard: They answered their country's call.

Each can recite her husband's unit by heart: HHB 197 Field Artillery. A Company 118 Medical Battalion. 172 Field Artillery. Laura wears her husband's dog tags. Shona, Jennifer and Dawn sleep in their husbands' Army shirts.

"When 9/11 came, I knew he was following his heart," Shona says. "He re-enlisted in the middle of us having two kids."

Says Jennifer: "My husband was born to be a soldier. That's why I fell in love. Love him to death. Obsessed."

The connective tissue of the modern world makes for a curiously intimate war. Shona and Dawn e-mail their husbands, sometimes several times a day. Laura talks on the satellite phone. The connection is immediate and intense, and when they hang up no one knows their anxiety. Not the clerk at the Grand Union, not their neighbors, not their aunts and uncles.

"I've got friends who say to me, 'Oh, I know how you feel,' " Shona says. "And I want to scream: 'Oh, no, you don't!' " Laura nods. A few weeks back, the kids were screaming and the microwave was spinning and there was homework to be done and the phone rang and her husband, Dion, was on the line and she knew something was up. Two mortar shells had landed near him — shrapnel had pierced his shirt, his ears were ringing.

"The first thing he asks me is: 'Baby, how much do you want to know?' " Laura says. "I never know how to answer that."

The election
One recent Saturday, Shona messaged her husband: "In my eyes, Kerry really blew the debate. Bush is not so articulate but I actually think it brings him more down to earth and makes him more believable."

He e-mailed back: "Yeah, when he talks, he talks from the heart."

Shona gave a speech when Bush came to New Hampshire and Pease Air National Guard Base this month. Her view of the war's progress is not as sunny as Bush's — her man takes too much incoming fire to see victory in the offing. But that's okay.

"People laughed at Ronald Reagan for fighting the Cold War," Shona says. "We won't beat the terrorists in one year."

Jennifer listens and nods. "If it takes three, four, five years over there, get the job done," she says. "I'd rather have my husband fight than my children."

There are voices of dissent. Martha Jo McCarthy and her husband, Ryan, cleaned homes and scrimped for years. Last October, they bought a home in Wakefield, a town tucked along New Hampshire's eastern border. A few months later, Ryan, 31, flew with his National Guard artillery unit to Iraq.

He was assigned to military police duty at a prison. His e-mails to Martha Jo talk about 115-degree temperatures and dehydration and getting shot at. Nothing he writes smacks of victory. "No one is going to die from the heat but it sure is hell," he writes. "We heard firing Sunday night but we always hear firing."

Martha Jo has a yellow ribbon on her car and war wives to talk with when her skin starts to crawl. But her car also bears a sticker that says: "My Husband is Protecting Dick Cheney's Stock Price, Not Freedom." She has spoken at rallies for Kerry. "Ryan and I felt like going to Afghanistan was about protecting freedom," she says. "But Iraq? We've turned it into a breeding ground for terror, casualties have gone up since the handover. ... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see it's going terribly."

Ryan's best friend got married a few months ago, and Ryan was supposed to be the best man. Martha Jo went in his place. "Ryan sent me an MP3 recording from Iraq and I blew up a life-size cutout photo of Ryan holding an Arabic Pepsi," she recalled. "When my turn came to give a toast, I played the recording of Ryan."

She looks away, her voice hitches. "You could have heard a pin drop."

Coming home
The question lingers unspoken. Will the husband who comes home be the same guy who left? The wives had a trial run a few weeks ago, when their husbands got a two-week leave in the States. One husband drove through Londonderry looking side to side for bombs. Ryan McCarthy cranked up the heat in the Jeep until it was 85 degrees in October in New Hampshire.

"In one way, it was like riding a bike — it was sooooo easy to be back with him," Martha Jo McCarthy says. "But Ryan was blasting that heat. He was a little angry, too. He did a lot of venting."

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 90 percent of the soldiers deployed to Iraq reported being shot at, a far greater combat exposure than for soldiers in Afghanistan or the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Fifteen percent of the soldiers report feeling major depression and generalized anxiety — almost twice the rate as recent wars.

"There's a clear difference between training twice a year and living in a war zone — we are seeing much more serious cases of PTSD," said Ehsan Biswas, chief of psychiatry at Manchester VA Medical Center, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "They constantly live with the threat of death. That hyper vigilance takes a great toll."

Back in Londonderry, Shona and Laura, Dawn and Jennifer talk about the day their husbands will return for good, about packing tents and beer coolers and suntan lotion and going on a "wicked awesome" vacation together. "Our husbands better like each other," Laura says, "because we won't give them any choice."

Their men have served nearly a year in Iraq and will remain through next summer. The two-week leave just were fine, but also a tease. A soldier cannot unwind from a war in two weeks.

"When Dion came home," Laura says, "he just sat in that hammock with his beer."

Jennifer nodded. "My husband had a little issue with driving. His eyes went back and forth like crazy."

Shona hoisted her young daughter over her head. "Jesse had an issue with crowds," she says. "And he wouldn't unpack his duffel bag. He just kept it by his bed. He said this war isn't over yet."