By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
As the war with Iraq enters its second year, local soldiers are learning to expect the unexpected.
Montana Army National Guard Sgt. Brian "Riley" Johnson didn't think he would be headed to the war.
"I'm the only full-time guy in Havre, so I figured that I was pretty safe," said Johnson, 30, a member of the 443rd Quartermaster Company. "As long as there were still people here, I thought I would have a job."
Then in April, the father of three received a letter telling him he was being called up for active duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On the top it said, "Congratulations for being chosen to represent Montana and the U.S. Army," he said.
Johnson's wife, Nicole, described her reaction as one of "bewilderment."
She had been preparing herself for the possibility that her husband might be called up, but even so, it seemed unlikely.
"It just goes to show that nobody is exempt," Riley Johnson said.
Sometime during the summer, he will report to Fort Bliss, Texas, with the 163rd Infantry for months of mobilization training in the heat. Then, jumping from the frying pan into the fire, he'll serve as a mechanic in Iraq, where he said maximum temperatures can reach more than 140 degrees.
"Somebody who came back said if you want to get used to it, take your hair dryer, put it on high and hold it a foot away from your face. And have somebody throw sand at you every once in a while," he quipped. Altogether Johnson is expecting to be gone for about two years.
Meanwhile, Nicole Johnson, 24, says she has a duty of her own.
"I have a mission at home to keep everything going here" with her household and her family in his absence, she said.
Riley and Nicole Johnson both said it's an honor for him to be called to serve. He's pleased to be going into the infantry because of the important security role it plays. But that doesn't make it easier to leave.
When a loved one is mobilized, "You go through the grieving process just as if somebody were to die," Nicole Johnson said.
She should know. A daughter of a military family, she first experienced deployment in 12th grade when her mother was deployed to Hungary, leaving her and the rest of her family back on the military base in Germany where they lived.
Now Nicole Johnson serves on an advisory council that oversees family readiness groups in communities across the state. The groups try to provide information and referrals for family members, anything from ways to handle stress to help contacting a plumber.
Riley said about three-quarters of the Hi-Line members of the Montana Army National Guard have been called up since the war in Iraq began. Several are in the process of being deployed, he said.
One of those is Havre resident Clyde Murray, 50, a Navy veteran who decided to re-enlist in Februrary after 12 years of retirement. He joined the 443rd Petroleum Supply Company, in part to help fill the gap in a local unit thinning from deployments.
Weeks later, Murray got a letter of his own.
Murray and his wife knew that could happen, but it happened faster than expected.
"Some of our thought processes were, we realized that they had deployed a lot of people out of here and we realized they were pretty short-handed," said his wife, Sylvia Murray. "And we knew that the mobilization was a definite possibility, but we just didn't think it would be this soon."
Murray left his job at Holland & Bonine Funeral Home, after making arrangements there for his own funeral, should the unthinkable happen. He was transferred to the 163rd Infantry battalion and is already undergoing intensive training in Great Falls to prepare for a possible deployment to Iraq, his wife said. She said that for a few days last week he'd been getting up about 6 a.m. and falling into bed at around 2 a.m. after a brief telephone call to tell her he's safe.
She said she recently learned from a family readiness group out of Helena that between now and the end of the summer, 1,000 Montanans will either be activated or deployed. They're not all in their late teens or early 20s.
"He's not the only one. There was a guy ahead of him in line who was 56," she said.
Where some might see the mobilization of older soldiers as a sign of a military stretched thin, Murray sees it as a more positive sign, because she said it helps the younger soldiers gain judgment and keep safe.
"They're taking quite a few of the mature ones," she said. "The experience is what they're after."
At the prospect of prolonged separation, both families have perspectives on what they need to do to keep their relationships strong.
The Murrays have been married for 24 years, and have never been separated for more than two weeks, Sylvia Murray said, but during a previous marriage to a man in the Navy she experienced a nine-month separation.
"I've been through separations before, so I really do know what's coming. ... I just know how important it is for (the partner left behind) to have contacts and local support, because it does get tough sometimes."
She said surviving a long absence will require communication and a good outlook.
"You just keep positive and go forward and keep in good communication. That's all you can do. As long as you keep yourselves deeply involved in each other's lives, you'll be OK," she said.
The Johnsons are at a different stage in their lives. Nicole Johnson just graduated from nursing school at MSU-Northern, and she said it felt like the family was settling down.
"We're just at a point in our lives when we're ready to raise our kids," she said.
Her husband said he thinks the most important thing is keeping in touch as much as possible, through letters, e-mails and phone calls.
For Nicole, it will be crucial to keep in mind what the other person is going through.
"I think the biggest thing for that, to keep us strong, is to have a greater appreciation for each other's jobs because we both have to make so many sacrifices," she said. While she has to handle three children 24 hours a day, her husband will have to sleep on a cot and worry about his safety 24 hours a day.
The few phone conversations they have can't be wasted on unloading frustrations, she said.
"If I say something about how I didn't sleep or something, he may be thinking inside, well at least I slept in a bed. That kind of thing," she said.
Of course, for the Johnsons, the marriage is not the only thing to worry about.
"It's tough for the kids too, because it's going to be a whole two years that's going to be taken out of my life with them that I won't be part of," Riley said. The family bought a DVD camcorder and a laptop computer, he said. His wife can record day-to-day life at home and mail the videos to him to watch on the computer wherever he is, he said.
The Johnsons' eldest daughter, Brandi, 7, is old enough to have a sense of the length of her father's absence and the place where he's going. When asked about his departure, her face becomes grave and she seems near tears.
"Well, I'm going to be sad," said Brandi, who regularly wears a yellow ribbon pinned to her t-shirt.
She said she wants to keep a basket at home that will hold pictures of her father, notes he wrote, and some of his belongings. That will have to be enough for the long months until he comes back.
And when that happens, he said, it is likely he will be a different person.
Nicole Johnson said whether the war changes her husband will probably depend on what he sees in Iraq.
But her husband says being called up has already had an effect, though not a negative one.
"It already has changed me. I'm appreciative of every day," he said.