Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

TOP STORY>> 39th Infantry women coming home

IN SHORT>> Medics who served in Iraq for a year are closer to their families in Jacksonville and Cabot after returning to Fort Sill, Okla. They’ll be home in early April.

Leader staff writer

Whether they went to war or stayed behind, these women of the 39th Infantry Brigade say the experience was one they didn’t expect or plan for, but it has made them stronger.

Sgt. Michelle Gonzales of Cabot and Sgt. Michelle Franks of Jacksonville are medics with the 39th Brigade Combat Team, 39th Support Battalion, Company C, in Lonoke, who were stationed at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. They returned last week to Ft. Sill, Okla., and will be back home in early April.

They enlisted in the National Guard mostly for the college money, drilled once a month for five years and went to camp for two weeks a year. And then, whether they wanted to go or not, they were deployed to the middle of a war zone, where they faced mortar fire and gave medical aid to soldiers whose bodies were mangled in battle.

Nicole Clark of Beebe is the wife of Spc. Joe Clark, who worked as a mechanic in the center of Baghdad. Clark married her high school sweetheart and had always depended on him to earn a living and help with major decisions. But since he’s been gone, she’s found a part time job and moved from an apartment to a house.

All three women are in their mid-20s and they are mothers who are anxious to reunite their families.

“It was very hard at first, but it was just one of those things,” Franks said of being deployed in the fall of 2003. She left behind her husband Michael, a guard at the Pulaski County Detention Center, and a year-old baby boy, Braden, who is now two and a half years old .

“You know you have to do it and there’s no way to get out of it,” she said. “But when I enlisted, the thought never crossed my mind that I would leave home.”

She and her husband met while they were both in the Guard. He served in Egypt for six months in 2000 and has since left the Guard.

“We’ve been married five years, and we’ve been apart for two years,” he said Tuesday.

He’s been playing Mr. Mom, taking Braden to daycare and cooking for him and doing the best under the circumstances.

“We can handle it,” Franks said. “It’s almost over with.”

Clark was pregnant with her second child when her husband, who works in pest control, was transferred from the Beebe unit to the 39th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 153 Infantry Regi-ment, Headquarters and Head-quarters’ Company in Malvern, which needed a mechanic.

He joined the Guard between his junior and senior years in high school and was one month away from fulfilling his obligation when he was deployed. Their 3-year-old son knows who Daddy is, she said. But her husband is looking forward to getting to really know both his children.

He’ll be home Friday or Saturday. His buddies from Beebe whose combat support work includes creating smoke screens for cover and chemical decontamination and will possibly be back from Iraq until sometime in April.

“It’s been hard with him gone,” Clark said. “It’s been hard being both mommy and daddy, but I’ve learned to be a lot more independent. I think it’s made us appreciate each other more.”

By far the worst experience was the mortar fire, Gonzales and Franks said Tuesday in phone interviews from Ft. Sill, Okla., where they will be until early April.

“It was April 24. We’d been there about two weeks and our pod was hit,” Gonzales said. “We had nine trauma patients and four passed away.”

Franks, an operation room technician at St. Vincent North Medical Center in Sherwood, had seen blood before, but she said that did not prepare her for the work she did in Iraq.

“It was very scary at first,” she said, adding that she would gather the strength to do her job then afterwards she would ask herself, “My God, what did I just do?”

But the people who came to the clinic were not all severe trauma victims. Some had abrasions. Some were simply sick and some were Iraqi police officers in need of physicals.

“The job wasn’t all bad,” Franks said.

When the mortar fire stopped sometime after the second month, life became a lot more bearable and at times enjoyable. In fact, she’s signed on for six more years.

For more than half her time in Iraq, Gonzales had family support close at hand. Her brother, Sgt. Chris Purchase, and her brother-in-law Sgt. Jason George are in her unit and were deployed to Iraq at the same time.

They both left in November for the Sinai. Her sister, Sgt. Melissa George also is in her unit, but she was not deployed out of the states.

To help the time pass, football and softball teams formed. A taste of home was provided by Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway, Gonzales said.

Like Franks, Gonzales was intrigued by the people she met in the war and like Franks, she has reenlisted for six more years and plans to stay in the Guard for 14 more. Her husband, Domingo, an inspector for the city of Little Rock, has turned into a regular “Mr. Mom” who has learned how to pay the household bills and braid their two daughter’s hair,” she said.

So if she is called upon again, she will leave her job as dispatcher and jailer for the Sherwood Police Department and go wherever the Guard needs her.

She’s accustomed to being in the Guard, she said. Besides, staying in 20 years will mean more retirement money so her daughters won’t have to support her in her old age.

Clark says her husband is getting out like he planned to before he was deployed. She was spending the week before his return tidying their new home and shopping for his favorite foods.

He’ll have some time off before he starts back to work and he’s promised to take her anywhere she would like to go for a family getaway. Anywhere that is except someplace with sand.