Soldiers’ spouses, children learning to cope alone

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 15, 2003

Early Thursday morning, Mandy Cupit heard fear in her husband Brad’s voice for the first time. She tries not to think about Brad’s safety or about a world security scene that, with uncertainty over war with Iraq, is changing daily. She doesn’t watch or listen to the news, not any more.

Conversations with her husband, an Army corporal stationed in Afghanistan since Feb. 7, are limited to 10 minutes.

That limits those twice-weekly talks to the basics &045; how their son, 3-year-old Tyler, is doing, or what grades Mandy is getting in her nursing classes, or how the finances are shaping up. There’s little time &045; or inclination &045; to talk about the dangers of military duty overseas. &uot;But I heard it,&uot; Mandy said, smiling nervously for just a second. &uot;In his voice.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

Then Tyler bounds into the living room, eager to perform back flips for visitors, and she shakes it off to put on another smile.

&uot;I don’t think about the danger over there,&uot; she said, &uot;so I can live the life I have to over here.&uot;

Mandy and Brad started dating when she was 16 and he was 18. He proposed to her two years later, two days before he started basic training.

&uot;I planned the whole wedding while he was away. All he had to do was show up and put on a tux,&uot; Mandy said, laughing.

Getting into the military &045; specifically, the 427th Engineering Battalion stationed in Ruston, La. &045; was something Brad did &uot;because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.&uot;

Still, Mandy readily admitted that she never thought he would be called into active duty, not in a million years.

&uot;It happens to thousands of people around the country all the time,&uot; she said, shaking her head. &uot;I just never thought it would happen to me.&uot;

Brad was called into active duty on Jan. 3. He was stationed at Fort Polk, La., until he and his battalion were shipped out to Afghanistan, arriving Feb. 7.

For Mandy and Tyler, the gap left by Brad’s departure hasn’t been easy to fill.

Mandy is in her last year of nursing school at Alcorn State University’s Natchez campus, which means a sometimes erratic schedule.

&uot;I have to spend two nights a week with my parents because I have to be up at 6 in the morning&uot; and they have to take Tyler to preschool, Mandy said.

Both sets of grandparents, who live in Vidalia, as well as other in-laws and extended family members, have been supportive in every way, from childcare to providing a sounding board, she said.

But there are other tasks to take care of as well, dozens of daily details Mandy seldom thought about when Brad was around.

&uot;There’s mowing five-and-a-half acres of grass,&uot; Mandy said. &uot;Taking out the trash, cleaning the house, taking Tyler to preschool. Our house needs a new roof, so I’m having to take of that.

Mandy had given Brad control of the household finances six months ago to allow her more time to study. But now that is, once again, her duty.

&uot;On the day he left, he handed me the checkbook and said, ‘Here,’&uot; she said. &uot;You get military pay tax-free and a separation allowance, but it’s still a struggle to pay for everything.&uot;

Since Tyler has a heart condition that has to be monitored &045; he had heart surgery as a baby &045; Mandy must soon make a decision about whether to keep visiting Tyler’s current doctor.

Her other option is to start seeing the one at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Monroe &045; where Brad’s military insurance will cover the bill.

Those are the types of decisions she must now make. That will be done with Brad’s input, of course, but she is very selective in what she burdens him with now.

&uot;They tell you not to tell them (the soldiers) about anything unless it’s absolutely necessary,&uot; she said.

And then there’s the studying itself, which is often a chore considering Tyler’s rambunctious nature. &uot;I used to have someone to watch him while I did that,&uot; Mandy said.

Does Brad’s absence have anything to do with Tyler’s behavior? Mandy thinks so. For one thing, Tyler does not understand why his daddy is not coming for a while &045; until September at the earliest, according to Mandy.

&uot;He keeps asking for his daddy,&uot; Mandy said, absently watching Tyler reach for a picture of his father in his military uniform. &uot;I tell him that daddy’s fighting the bad guys to protect Mommy and Tyler.

&uot;He keeps rebelling out,&uot; Mandy said. Right on cue, Tyler looked over and smiled. &uot;Mommy,&uot; he said, &uot;you’re so sweet.&uot;

She smiled back, a wry smile. &uot;You don’t think that all the time,&uot; she said with a laugh.

Sometimes it’s the more intangible things, apart from the bills and yardwork and day care and roof, that Mandy misses the most.

&uot;I miss him walking in the door and me being able to have an adult conversation with someone,&uot; she said. &uot;Although I know if I need to talk to someone, I can go to my mother-in-law’s house or my brother-in-law’s house.&uot;

But another thing has come of Brad’s absence. Mandy has found a whole other world of support, one she never knew existed.

It started when a couple stopped her at the gate when she and Tyler saw Brad off at Fort Polk in February. They asked her name and address and said they had taken pictures of Brad and his family together.

A few weeks later, Mandy received a present in the mail &045; a snowglobe frame with a picture of Brad smiling from the cab of his military truck. On the other side is a picture of Brad, Mandy and Tyler together.

Mandy added it to the mix of family photos that covers every table, shelf and foot of wall space in the living room.

&uot;To think that someone would do that for a complete stranger. Š It just makes me feel good,&uot; Mandy said.

Then, through her grandmother, she saw an article about a military support group meeting locally at First Presbyterian Church of Natchez. That group meets at 6 p.m. Thursday at the church’s Stratton Chapel.

Although she is currently the only military wife in the group &045; the rest are mothers of soldiers or are veterans themselves &045; Mandy said she has been overwhelmed by the support she has received.

&uot;It was very emotional that first day,&uot; Mandy said. &uot;It’s amazing to see how many people are in your same situation, or close to it.&uot;

A man from Brad’s battalion has built a Web site that includes a message board for military families to support each other and leave messages for their loved ones overseas.

There’s also a chatroom for military wives that Mandy is trying to access.

And the fact that there are plenty of other groups working to support the troops themselves comforts Mandy, too.

For example, members of their church &045; First Baptist Church of Vidalia &045; write letters to Brad regularly, and the students of Vidalia Lower Elementary have also sent letters.

Mandy herself sends letters and/or packages twice a week &045; something that will become even more important now that his unit has been stationed two hours away from the nearest telephone.

&uot;They just have to burn the (packaging) after they get it because they don’t want (terrorists) to get the return address and send you anything,&uot; Mandy said.

What does she send? Things she never would have thought of as important before &045; Lysol and electrical outlets, as well as taped messages of her and Tyler.

&uot;I even sent the guys (in his unit) a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day,&uot; Mandy said. &uot;I thought, ‘By now they could really use some chocolate.’&uot;

Mandy is hoping that Brad will be able to send her pictures of the country he is calling is temporary home, if only so she can assemble a scrapbook of his time overseas.

&uot;For when he gets home,&uot; Mandy said, flashing another brief &045; but bright &045; smile.