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Citizens and Soldiers
Waiting For A Call To War; A Reservist And His Young Family Face An Uncertain Future
By Kate Santich
October 25, 2001
It should be one of those blessedly normal evenings in suburbia. A little girl squeals in delight at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, races to the garage and punches the door opener to greet the familiar white Honda and her father's grinning face.
"Papi!" 6-year-old Sira Echevarria says, showering him with hugs and a kiss and asking about his day. And all the frustrations and worries of the father's grownup world melt away -- save for one.
As Alan Echevarria embraces his daughter, as he kisses his wife, as he cradles his 9-week-old baby girl in his arms, there is this nagging thought in the back of his brain. At any moment of any day, he knows, the phone might ring, and he will have 24 hours to pack his bags and go.
For when he is not Mr. Echevarria, financial counselor at Florida Hospital Altamonte, when he is not Papi, he is Capt. Echevarria, U.S. Army Reserves.
He is a soldier.
And like tens of thousands of his fellow reservists across the country, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, what was once a distant possibility is now a likely reality. They have been told: Be ready. Be wary. Stick close.
"We all keep asking, `Are we going? Is it time?' " the 35-year- old says. "And the answer so far has been, `No, not yet. Keep waiting. Keep waiting.' "
Each day he talks by phone with someone from the unit. Each day, as the training officer, he fields calls from his troops. And each day the probability seems to creep a little closer.
He keeps a bag packed with his uniforms and his steel-toed boots. He keeps a laptop computer in his car, hoping that, wherever he winds up, he'll be able to stay in touch with his family by e-mail. He even plans to grab a Web cam from his house at the last moment before shipping out.
He and his wife have long talks about things a young couple shouldn't have to -- like writing a will and granting power of attorney and the likelihood of chemical or biological warfare.
"We are worried about our newborn," he admits, "that she is not going to have a chance in this world."
As eager as he is to serve his country, he is equally reluctant to leave his wife and daughters. Especially his first-born, especially Sira.
Gabriela, born in August seven weeks early, is too young to comprehend her father's absence. But Sira -- she is Daddy's girl.
An entrancing child with dark hair and coy smile, she is her father's shadow. When he sits on the sofa, she curls herself onto his lap and wraps his hand around hers. When he talks, she gazes upward, hanging on his words, waiting for his attention to drift down.
When he leaves for training -- one weekend each month and two weeks in the summer -- she searches her parents' bedroom for the camouflage baseball cap he wears in uniform. In its absence, she knows: "Daddy is at the Army."
When he returns, she grabs the hat and marches around the house, saluting. Look at me. I'm an Army girl. She talks of growing up and joining the service to become a doctor.
"And she keeps begging me to buy her a `Hello Kitty' camouflage outfit," says her mother. Tereza Echevarria rolls her eyes at the collision of soldier machismo and little-missy fashion.
But Alan Echeverria smiles. When he himself was a boy, growing up in Puerto Rico, he idolized his father, who spent 30-some years in the military, retiring as a master sergeant. When the father came home from duty, young Alan would put on his dad's fatiques -- still smelling of sweat -- and march around the house. Just like Sira.
"My dad is my hero," Alan says. "I know what that's like. I know it's not going to be easy."
FACING EXTRAORDINARY TIMES
They are ordinary people in extraordinary times. Alan and Tereza stand on their front lawn in an east Orlando suburb -- the kind of neighborhood where single-story homes are divided by picket fences and tidy sidewalks -- and watch their daughter blitz the streets on her bike, a little turquoise and lavender model with a big basket and streamers. The neighbors wave. The kids a few houses down stop by to play.
And then the phone rings.
Tereza, her nerves still jangled by the sleep deprivation of a new baby and the events of Sept. 11, feels her heart quicken. Her smile fades.
"Alan, it's for you," she says darkly, handing him the phone. By now the 31-year-old accountant has come to recognize the voice of the Army administrator and to read her husband's face for clues.
No, she says to herself after a moment. Not this time.
His unit, the 81st Reserve Support Command, is charged with transportation duties -- moving everything the soldiers might need to wherever they might need it. Transportation units are the first to go to the warfront and the last to leave.
When the couple met at the University of Puerto Rico, he was already in the military, taking ROTC courses with his academic studies. Tereza remembers him sitting too close to her in class, pulling her hair, whispering in her ear until a professor had to separate them.
"Like we were in kindergarten," she says in mock exasperation.
"It was fun," he counters, grinning.
But he would spend the next two years of their courtship away on active duty in Texas and Missouri before they married and moved to Orlando.
"When I married him," Tereza says, "I bought the package."
So she knows both sides of him. She knows the man of discipline and ambition, the man who insisted she finish her education before they planned a wedding. She had faxed him her diploma. "OK," she'd scribbled in the margin, "I'm done!"
She knows the man who worked especially hard to become a commissioned officer, who stood tall as his father pinned the bars on the breast of his uniform and saluted him.
"I like that military stuff," he says, pulling his shoulders back and straightening his posture. "I like structure. I like sacrificing to earn something. And even though I hated getting up at 5 and doing push-ups and sit-ups and running the obstacle course, I liked that I had to be in pain in order to achieve what I wanted."
Tereza saw all that in him and, yet, she never imagined he would actually go off to war.
"You don't think a war is going to happen," she says, knowing it sounds wistful now. "You think wars are World War II and Korea and Vietnam. You think they are history."
She has always seemed the more fearful one, the more emotionally fragile one. He tends to keep a calm facade, even when worry gnaws at him inside.
Consider the overwhelming month of August, when first Alan's father needed emergency quadruple bypass surgery, then Tereza went into premature labor. Alan was the one who stood in the neonatal intensive care unit -- with wires and probes and monitors everywhere on baby Gabriela's frail, 4-pound body -- and asked the nurses to cover up what they could before his wife came in to see the child. Only when Tereza left did Alan take a moment to himself, walking down the hallway alone and crying.
Being stoic can take its toll.
Just after Gabriela was discharged, Alan awakened one morning having chest pains and barely able to breathe. Given his family history -- both his mother and father have had heart troubles -- the hospital did $10,000 in stress tests, echocardiograms and CT scans.
It turned out to be an anxiety attack.
"So that was August," he says wryly. "August was a fun month. And then, of course, September came."
AN UNPREDICTABLE FUTURE
There are things they only admit in quiet moments.
Despite his concern for his family, despite the certainty that he will miss them, despite the dangers he will face, there is a part of Alan Echevarria that would dearly love to be the soldier he has dreamed of being since boyhood.
And despite her belief that he would be reasonably safe, despite knowing he is part of the best-equipped army in the world, there is the doubt that creeps into her head.
"Sometimes you are scared that if he goes," she says, practically whispering, "he might never come back."
At night she lies awake and worries, not just about him leaving, but about the tumultuous world in which she suddenly finds herself.
"You want to turn on the TV and hear that, OK, they solved the problem, that there is no more war, that everything is just going to go back to the way it used to be," she says.
And so they look for ways to laugh.
"Once I have power of attorney, I can do with his assets whatever I want," she taunts, grinning. "I could sell the house."
"But she will not!" he says.
"Probably he will be fine," she says. "Probably he will go off to war and nothing will happen to him, and then he'll come home and be driving around and have a bad accident and -- boom -- that's it."
He shakes his head. "Thanks a lot."
They talk about logistics -- about installing a burglar alarm, about hiring someone to cut the grass in Alan's absence, about the Army's medical benefits and paycheck. Given Alan's officer status , he'll actually earn more on military duty than at his day job at the hospital.
Tereza's mother will stay with them, at least for several months, to help take care of the baby. The timetable depends, as so many things do these days, on an unpredictable future.
TELLING SIRA, AGE 6
One Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, as the family was sitting down to dinner, Alan turns to Tereza and says, "I think it's time." His wife nods.
They then try to explain to Sira, on a 6-year-old's terms, how Dad might leave and how they don't know when he'll come back.
"You know that thing you saw on TV about the bad guys and the planes?" he starts. "Well, the big boss, President Bush, he is moving people around so that this will never happen again."
He may be gone for "a while," he says, "like when we go on vacation. I'll be in the Army like I'm on vacation, and it's going to be for a while."
The little girl is quiet, pensive. "Why?" she says at last.
He tries again.
And in the end, he doesn't know if she understands or not. He doesn't know if it frightens her or worries her or if she won't really grasp the situation until after he leaves. He never knows what his child's mind will latch onto.
He thinks about a friend and fellow reservist in Daytona Beach who tried to explain the situation to her son -- only to have the boy answer, "Oh, you're going to war. That means you're going to die."
Certainly Alan does not want that. He doesn't want to traumatize his daughter. But he also doesn't want to make her promises he can't keep. Although he would not normally pick up a weapon himself, he knows a soldier must do whatever he is called upon to do.
And, in truth, he doesn't know himself what will happen. He doesn't know if or when, or whether he'll be gone three weeks or six months or two years. That's just how life is these days. Next month, the family was supposed to vacation in San Antonio, where Tereza's sister lives, where Gabriela was to be baptized. Now, that's on hold. Alan has indefinite orders to stay within a few hours of the base on Corrine Drive in Orlando.
"You can't make plans two weeks ahead," he says. "You make plans one day at a time."
So although he has always been one to try to kiss his wife and kids before leaving for work each morning, now he makes certain.
"I don't forget to say `I love you,' " he says. "Because you never know."