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4 Hearts In 3 Cities

By Kate Santich

February 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Theirs was never a storybook romance.

Their courtship was spent stationed in Germany, where they slept in tents and went up to a month without showering. Their wedding was a quickie civil ceremony back in the states, followed by a reception -- if you could call it that -- at the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet.

They honeymooned on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

Rauel Tirado and the former Jackie Zuluaga never expected Army life to be cushy, though when they transferred to the Army Reserve, the Orlando couple hoped for a semblance of normalcy. They bought a house, landed good civilian jobs and, in the tumultuous weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, sharing comfort and passion, Jackie became pregnant with their first child.

"We've been through a lot together," says Jackie, now 30. "And it's just brought us closer, even though we are apart."

As she speaks, there are 738 miles between them. She's at Fort Campbell, Ky., where her unit was sent last month, possibly as a pit stop on its way to Iraq. He's at Fort George Meade, Md., where he was sent for training last November.

And their 7-month-old baby is home in Orlando, being cared for by Rauel's mother, who took a leave of absence from her two jobs, said goodbye to her husband, and moved down from Pennsylvania for the duration. She is also looking after Rauel's son from a previous marriage, 9-year-old Payne.

"My son tries to call every night," Teresa Tirado says. "Jackie calls every night. My husband calls every night. Everybody misses everybody."

She sighs and goes to rinse off the baby's pacifier, which he has dropped on the floor yet again.

"And I -- " she pauses, searching for the right words in English "well, I am running around like a chicken with the head cut off."

On their last day together, Jan. 19, Sgt. Jackie Tirado cradled her infant son and planted kisses on his still mostly hairless head. She whispered in his ear.

"Mommy loves you," she said. They were the same words she had said to him every night since he was born, the same words she still says to him every night when she calls. But now she adds, "Mommy misses you."

Jackie had joined the Army shortly after graduating from the University of Central Florida in 1994. Unable to find work, she stopped in at a recruiting office, and, lured by educational opportunities the Army offered, she signed up. She hoped to earn a master's degree in psychology after her active duty, a goal she has nearly reached now.

But first there was Germany, where she met Rauel -- and spent eight months in the mountains in a tent.

"Trust me, my husband has seen me at my worst," she says. "No makeup, no perfume, nasty, dirty, smelly. And I have seen him at his worst. So you know the fact that we're still together means it's true love."

She is calling from Fort Campbell at 9:20 on a Sunday night. She has just finished her duties, giving immunizations to deploying soldiers and conquering a mountain of military paperwork. She began at 7 a.m.

Most days are like this -- up before the sun and laboring well past nightfall.

She knew that by Valentine's Day, also the start of the long Presidents Day weekend, her husband would have saved up a few days' leave. She told him not to spend it visiting her, but rather to fly home and see the children.

"The baby needs us more than we need each other," she says.

Adults can understand they are still loved from afar. They can understand -- intellectually, at least -- the concepts of distance and duty.

Yet sometimes when Jackie stops by the cafeteria of the Army hospital, she'll pass young mothers with their babies, and she'll feel the tug at her heart.

"I just want to hold my son," she says. "I want to look in his eyes. I want to reach out for his little hand, hear his laughter, watch him take those first few steps. I am missing all those milestones."

Long, long days

Thirty-one-year-old Rauel Tirado is not a talkative man. He is gentle, soft-spoken, romantic. Last year for Valentine's Day, he gave his wife a teddy bear carrying a rose and tiny jewelry bag. Inside was a diamond pendant.

She gave him a card and balloons. He didn't mind.

In his soul, Rauel is an artist. A self-portrait and charcoal sketch of his wife hang in the family room, near the baby's playpen. His photographs of Europe decorate the living room. A year ago, Rauel decided the Army would be best served by him carrying not a gun, but a notepad and camera.

The Army, having discovered the importance of good public relations several wars ago, agreed. A few months later his superiors sent him to its school in Maryland, where two years of college classes would be crammed into 31/2 months. He is being trained to write for military publications or to serve as a public information officer. Or he could find himself chaperoning reporters in Iraq.

Rauel will graduate March 5, when he hopes to come home. But there are no guarantees.

His unit in Orlando is already on alert, the first step toward deployment.

"The only reason I haven't been deployed yet is because I had to finish my schooling," Rauel says. "Already three guys from my unit have been activated and sent off."

He tries not to let the thought linger. After all, his days are long and tiring. He arises at 4:30 a.m. and by 4:50 must report for physical training -- 70 minutes of running and exercises in the often-freezing temperatures. By 7:50, he is in school, which lasts until at least 4 p.m., even on weekends. His nights are filled with homework that sometimes stretches to the wee hours.

He doesn't always get the chance to call home.

"It's pretty difficult," he says of the separation. "But it's a sacrifice we are making. Hopefully down the road when the kids gets older they'll appreciate that we made it for them. I hope they know that it's not that we wanted to go away."

His own mother had been an Army reservist for the Pennsylvania National Guard. Teresa Tirado had, in fact, gone to weekend drill the day before she gave birth to him. Fellow soldiers placed bets on when she would deliver. And afterward, from the time Rauel was a baby to the year he graduated from high school, his mother would often bring the boy with her to the base at Fort Indiantown Gap.

"The guys would take him for rides in the Jeep," she says. "He loved it. He really grew up there."

But she never had to leave Rauel the way he has had to leave his own children. In 1994, when he was sent to Germany for three years, his oldest son, Payne, was an infant himself. Rauel knows he missed pieces of a life taking shape.

The boy was too young to remember much, but this time around it's different.

"I feel pretty sad," he says one recent night. He wishes he could show his dad the valentine he made for his grandmother. He wishes his dad could have sent him off to school earlier that day so he wouldn't have been so nervous for a big test. He wishes Jackie were back too because they always had a good time together, especially when the baby did something silly.

He pauses, looking for the bright side.

"We got pictures of them here," he says at last. "So that makes me happy."

Daily photo lesson

In the living room sits a portrait of the handsome couple, he in uniform, she in an elegant black dress, her dark hair cascading to her waist. It was taken in a castle in Germany, where their battalion held its Christmas ball one year.

Every day at some point, Teresa Tirado takes the picture from its spot on the end table and shows it to the baby.

"This is Mommy," she says, pointing. "This is Daddy."

She does not want young Andres Tirado to forget. He stares at the photos, his green eyes wide and curious, but his expression doesn't change.

In the three weeks since his mother left, he has started to crawl, and he now makes good time exploring the house and chasing the cat. A tiny scratch on his leg is the result of an experiment: What happens when you pull the kitty's tail?

"The only thing I had forgotten is how quickly they can get into trouble," Teresa says.

She is young for a grandmother -- only 52 -- and well-acquainted with long days. Back home in Lebanon, Pa., she works two jobs, as an accountant for the local Veterans Affairs hospital and a clerk in a department store. And thanks to the fitness test she must pass to stay in the reserves herself, she is in good shape. She walks the baby briskly twice a day, often for up to an hour at a time.

Her maternal instincts run deep. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she was the fourth-born of 16 children. All her life, it seems, she has been caring for someone -- a sibling, a niece or nephew, a cousin, a grandchild.

"He is such a happy little fellow," she says of the baby. "But when Jackie left, he was so nice and innocent, and now he's crawling all over the place, and he's talking."

Andres, as if to illustrate her point, decides to head for the cat again.

"At! At!" he declares, grinning wildly.

She heads him off at the pass just as the phone rings. Jackie, on a rare lunch break, is calling to check in. Teresa fills her in on the morning's well-baby checkup and Andres' wailing protests over polio and diphtheria vaccinations. He has put on four pounds since she left, Teresa reports.

In the background, Andres, wearing a romper that says "Prince Charming," cries his halfhearted I-want-attention cry. Finally Teresa turns to him and holds up the receiver. "You want to listen to Mommy?"

The baby freezes. Then he smiles and reaches out, grabbing at the phone, accidentally hitting a button and disconnecting the call.

"He always does that," Teresa says, shaking her head.

Jackie, having come to expect this, calls back immediately. She coos to him softly, "Mommy loves you. Mommy misses you."

Andres seems smitten by the sound.

"Hiiii. Hiiii," he offers.

A journal -- for later

He had first said "mama" on the day she left, pointing at his mother as she stood in formation for her farewell ceremony at the U.S. Army Reserve Center near Baldwin Park. Jackie, hearing her son's voice, had started to cry.

She doesn't know how long she'll be gone -- maybe a year, maybe more -- or when she'll get to see Andres next. For now it seems likely her medical support unit will stay at Fort Campbell, but in the military orders can change abruptly.

Her father is taking video of the baby. Teresa is sending snapshots. And each night Jackie writes in a journal -- a book she will give Andres some day when he is old enough to appreciate it.

She hopes when she tells him about her own life -- about how her parents emigrated from Colombia to give their children a better chance for a future -- that he will see that she too gave up her home, if only for a while, and that she did it for him.

"We cannot take our country for granted," she says. "I have seen what war does to countries. I've seen what it does to children and to families. And I don't want that here. I don't want that for my son."

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