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Today's Military Kids Often Say Bye to Dad -- and Mom

Armando Escobar Asks Lots of Tough Questions


March 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved. 

FORT CARSON, Colo. -- It has been an anxious few weeks for Armando Escobar, an 11-year-old who lives on this big Army post.

On Valentine's Day, his father loaded the tank he commands onto a railroad car for ultimate shipment to the Persian Gulf. A few days later, Armando's mother, a Naval reservist, told the boy she might be leaving for the Gulf as well.

The prospects of war, chemical weapons and his parents' going away have filled Armando with unfamiliar worries. "Saddam Hussein has a kind of nerve gas that makes your eyes bleed," he recently announced to his father, Staff Sgt. Ernesto Escobar, 34.

Specifically, the boy wonders what will happen if he and his two younger sisters lose both their parents in the war. "Who will watch over us?" he asks.

As the U.S. threatens war with Iraq, the people who will be most directly affected -- members of the military and their families -- look vastly different from their draft-era predecessors. Today's soldiers are older and more likely to be married with children than those who fought in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

They are also better educated -- about 20% of the active force has a college degree, compared with about 12% of the force in 1982 and less than 15% in the Gulf War. And they are far more likely to be female. Today about 15% of all active-duty troops are women, up from about 8% in 1980, although women aren't allowed in front-line combat units in either the Army or the Marine Corps.

The role of reservists has changed dramatically, too, since the early 1970s. After Vietnam, a handful of senior military officers decided to make it harder for the president to take the country to war without public support. So they shifted several critical specialties, such as medical and military-police brigades, into the reserves, making it almost impossible for the president to send even a small force abroad without calling up reservists. The result is that the reserve forces have been used with greater frequency in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

More and more, those troops being sent abroad include significant numbers of married couples with children. In all there are about 125,000 active and reserve troops with a spouse also in the service. In early March, Rodney and Tonia Cowden, married sergeants in the 101st Airborne Division, were sent to Kuwait, leaving behind their 11-year-old son, Kyle, at Fort Campbell, Ky. Kyle's father visited his son at school on the day he learned he was leaving.

"Bubba, I got to leave today," the sergeant said. "I don't know when I'll be able to call you. Be good and do your homework. It will be over soon." The boy's mother had departed five days earlier for Kuwait. For the next three months Kyle, who spent a year away from his parents when they were both assigned to Korea , will stay with his nanny. After the school year ends, he'll go live with his grandparents in Texas.

Across the street from Armando's house, two other military parents have already shipped off, leaving a grandmother in charge of their son, who is about Armando's age. "She can't cook, so they get to eat junk food all the time," Armando says.

His mother, Waddie Vazquez, 35, joined the reserves two years ago while her active-duty husband, Sgt. Escobar, was in the midst of a yearlong assignment to Korea . She needed extra money to cover the costs of her three children's day care while she attended nursing school. As a reservist, she earns about $575 a month in salary and educational benefits for herself. Her kids all go to school on base at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs.

She chose the Naval Reserves because it was the only service that required just two weeks of boot camp for medics. Similar programs in the Army and Air Force take 11 weeks. "I didn't want to be away from my kids for that long," she said.

Her husband was upset that she enlisted while he was away in Korea . He worried that she might be called up to active duty while he was away. But Ms. Vazquez says she has no regrets. As a nurse in a civilian hospital job, she makes more money than her husband does, she says. And he makes about $2,000 a month.

"Instead of being one paycheck in the hole, now we have two or three paychecks in the bank," she says.

In December, it looked pretty certain that Sgt. Escobar's unit, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, was going to be sent to the Gulf. A long-planned training exercise was scrapped without explanation. Commanders ordered up extra training in chemical and biological defenses.

A few weeks later, Ms. Vazquez began to worry. Her reserve commander told her to make sure her will and life insurance were in order.

In early February, she and her husband sat down at their wobbly kitchen table to figure out who would take care of their kids. "We went around and around," she says. "It was process of elimination."

Her mother's health wasn't good enough. His parents lived too far away. They finally settled on her sister, Lilly Vazquez, who had lived with them for four years after she moved to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico.

Lilly and her husband, also an Army sergeant, live in a two-bedroom apartment outside Rochester, N.Y. The three kids would have to move across the country and share a room. But at least they would be with someone they knew well.

Ms. Vazquez, whose 13 years as an Army wife have hardened her to her husband's absences, still hasn't told her daughters, Ariana, 5, and Arcelia, 4, that she might be leaving. "All we have told the girls is that Daddy is going on a long training exercise," she says.

It hasn't been so easy with 11-year-old Armando. In the past few months, he has become a news junkie. He watches "Good Morning America" and hears school gossip. He knows the U.S. needs nine votes in the U.N. Security Council for the war resolution the U.S. wants it to support, the status of negotiations with Turkey, and far more than his mother would like about Saddam Hussein's suspected arsenal of chemical weapons.

To ease Armando's mind, his father told him, "I am always going to be in a tank. Nothing can hurt a tank."

Armando believed otherwise. When his dad was packing his gas mask and protective suit, the boy asked, "Does your mask protect you against the nerve gas that makes your tongue swell and choke you?"

"It does," his father replied.

"Does it protect you against the gas that makes your eyes bleed?"

Sgt. Escobar took out his mask and let his son pull it over his small wire-rimmed glasses. He let him feel the charcoal in his antichemical suit.

A few days later, Armando asked his mother whether he could catch smallpox from his father's vaccine scab.

The year his father spent in Korea was particularly hard on Armando. He struggled in school, misbehaving and refusing to do homework.

"The one thing I'll always remember him saying was that he hated the Army. He hated Daddy's job," Ms. Vazquez says. The boy said he wished his father were a baker so he wouldn't have to go anywhere but his store.

Two weeks ago, Sgt. Escobar and his crew shipped off their 70-ton tank, which they have nicknamed "Hellrazer." They themselves expect to board planes for the Gulf sometime in the next week or so.

For now, Sgt. Escobar and his three-man crew spend afternoons honing their skills in tank simulators.

Last week, Sgt. Escobar and his crew mopped up the oil spills in the now-empty motor pool, signed wills and powers of attorney and updated their life-insurance policies.

He said goodbye to his mother and father, who paid an unannounced weekend visit.

Early next week, he and his men will be issued tan desert camouflage uniforms and get the last of their vaccinations before heading for Kuwait. Before he leaves, Sgt. Escobar has promised to take his daughters to Chuck E. Cheese, his son to the movies and his wife to dinner.

Sgt. Escobar and his wife pay particular attention to the movement of Navy aircraft-carrier battle groups. Each time one is deployed, Ms. Vazquez assumes the chances of her being called to duty increase. So far, eight of the 30 doctors and nurses in her unit have been called up to active duty.

"Tell me straight out -- what are the chances we are going to get called up?" Ms. Vazquez asked last week. Her commander said she didn't know.

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