The fight back home

A few summers ago, best friends Seth Hildreth and Whesley Evans spent the tourist season working the bars at Broadway at the Beach. Hildreth was a doorman; Evans a bar back.

But summer jobs gave way to demanding military careers.

Now a combat engineer, Army Spc. Evans spent a couple of weeks in Myrtle Beach in late March before resuming his Iraq tour. He walked on the beach with his wife, embraced his family and cherished things he hadn't appreciated before.

Evans also learned his friend, Army Spc. Hildreth, died in Baghdad in August when a roadside bomb exploded. He was 26.

In the four years and more than 3,000 U.S. casualties since American forces deployed to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, whenever a bomb explodes in Iraq, shock waves resonate throughout the Carolinas where the war continues to take a toll on many families.

Since September 2001, roughly 359,200 troops have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. According to the Heritage Foundation's October analysis of military enlistments, wartime recruits draw heavily "from rural areas, particularly the South."

In North Carolina, military presence contributed more than $18 billion to the gross state product in 2004, and 333,000 people derived some economic benefit from military spending. Billboards proclaim it the "most military-friendly state."

But Maureen Ruocco of Bolivia, N.C., will feel a lot friendlier when her daughter, Air Force Staff Sgt. Melissa Safreed, is back in the States.

"My husband was in Vietnam twice. Now it's like going through it all over again," Ruocco said. "I had three daughters. I never thought one would go to war. You listen to the news more than the normal person."

Safreed, who will miss her baby's second birthday next week, serves as a contracting officer at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. She e-mails home almost daily, and her parents jump on the computer each morning looking for them. Her family never knows exactly where she is - just that she always travels with bodyguards.

Troops may describe upcoming missions as "business trips," offering no details that might cause those at home more angst. Their oft-echoed reprise is, "Let's get the job done and get home."

Ruocco, who cared for her 2-month-old grandchild while Safreed spent a month in training, expects her daughter home in June. Safreed's husband, a chief master sergeant, is scheduled to deploy in September. Parents' deployments affect an estimated 700,000 preschool children from military families.

The Cavanaughs of Forestbrook are eagerly waiting for their son, a tank loader who has been overseas since October, to return to his California base by month's end. Like many young men and women who volunteered for service, Marine Pfc. Andrew Cavanaugh, 25, was motivated by Sept. 11, 2001.

His mother, Laurie Cavanaugh, hasn't slept through the night since he left.

"It has been an absolute nightmare. I just said to my husband, `If he gets deployed again, I'm going to be comatose for seven months,'dh" Cavanaugh said. "Our motto is: No news is good news. If there are soldiers killed, you hold your breath and hope they don't come knocking on your door."

As executive director of Regency Hospice, Joyce Calabrese helps other families cope with losing loved ones every day. But when her cousin, Chief Warrant Officer Sharon Swartworth, was shot down in 2003 as her Black Hawk helicopter left Tikrit, Iraq, Calabrese couldn't bring herself to attend ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Five troops died in the attack, including one from Fort Mill.

"I was 14 when she was born," Calabrese said. "This was my godchild."

Swartworth, a chief adviser in the Army Judge Advocate General's office, was on what would have been her last mission before retirement. The family will never know what classified matter she was investigating. They do know when she died, two days before her 44th birthday, she left an 8-year-old son and a Navy captain husband.

She had eluded tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, when a hijacked plane struck the Pentagon. The office that was hers until the week before the attacks was directly in its path.

"Every time you hear about a fallen soldier, you think of your own relatives who died," Calabrese said. "It reminds me of the Vietnam War."

While separation is painful for parents of those serving, it's especially complicated for couples.

"The challenges [are] the same things you would face if your husband would go on an extended business trip," said Col. Pete Brooks, public information officer for the S.C. National Guard. "You go from a team to a single-parent household. Before, duties were split."

Family Assistance Centers throughout the state help guard members transition to active- duty status, acquainting them with benefits available to active- duty military.

"When these units are deployed, we go out and do family briefs," said Sherry Marsh of the Family Readiness Office. "We have lots of different options. It just depends on what they need."

Marriage retreats sponsored by the Guard give couples who have been separated for a year to 18 months time to get reacquainted.

Marsh's Columbia office has about 10 people fielding requests from all over the state. As 1,800 members of one brigade prepare to deploy from Camp Shelby in Mississippi, a mobilization center for overseas deployment, they're getting 100 calls a week.

Dealing with deployment

When Sgt. Jonathan West recruits young Air Force personnel in Myrtle Beach, he usually encounters worried parents.

"That's one of the main questions: `What's going on in Iraq?' " he said. "That's probably the biggest concern."

While the possibility of deployment always looms, West says he has only had five airmen deploy of the 51 he has recruited.

"I've known people who never deployed. I deployed after two years," said West, who enlisted at 17 and dismantled improvised explosive devices in Pakistan before becoming a recruiter. "If your aircraft unit gets deployed, they want the maintenance person out there - that's what the Air Force is about . . . protect that aircraft."

Former Marine Sgt. Brittany Lazo, whose family lives in Murrells Inlet, completed three tours in Iraq as a pilot of unmanned aerial vehicles - planes that are about 11 feet long with an almost 17-foot wingspan flown from the ground by instrument.

She had been nominated to the Naval Academy, but is pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering near the base in Cherry Point, N.C. Her husband, a Marine who does the same job, deployed a few weeks ago.

"It was 12-hour days, first deployment. It got more relaxed during the second and third deployment," she said.

Lazo advises military families not to believe what they see on television.

"CNN is the worst. All these news places are the worst," she said. "Especially all the news reporters that travel with convoys. Why don't they go with the people building schools and doing good stuff?"

Army National Guard Maj. Ricky Cox, who returned to a forward-operating base in Baghdad earlier this month, shares her sentiments.

"Everybody thinks we're living in a foxhole with a piece of plastic over my head," he said. "We're not in that type of war environment."

Cox, who teaches at St. James High School where his oldest son will graduate next month, joined the service in 1982, so his family knows the deployment drill.

"They've handled it very well. They know it's something I have to go and do. I'm not having to worry about them."

For Andy, 15, his father's absence has meant more chores for him and his brothers. He won't watch the news but said he still gets "scared sometimes, 'cause I don't know where he is when things happen."

His father tracks violence across the provinces and analyzes data to determine when parts of the country go back to Iraqi control.

"The people of Iraq want to live free, just like the people of the U.S.," Cox said. "They are learning how. We just have to give them time."