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Dad's in Iraq, and the Family's on Edge

By MICHAEL WINERIP Published: August 12, 2007
Dith Pran/The New York Times

Mrs. Comas-Phillips and her daughters with her father, left, and members of the Pardo family. USUALLY bedtime is the worst, but sometimes those little-girl fears spill out at the most unexpected moments. Sofia Comas-Phillips was in her bedroom watching a TV news report of the I-35W bridge collapse when her 10-year-old daughter, Jay-Dee, walked in. Jay-Dee glimpsed the destroyed bridge on the screen. The mother saw a look of fear and noticed her daughter’s eyes well up.

“Is that where he’s at?” Jay-Dee asked.

“He’s nowhere near that,” said the mother.

That bridge collapsed in Minnesota, of course, and Jay-Dee’s daddy is in Iraq.

Sgt. Benjamin Phillips, 34, a medic with the New York Army National Guard, left home on July 1, 2006, and is not due back from Iraq until October, and that is hard on the little family he left behind.

From casually watching them move about their daily business, you wouldn’t know. By 6 every morning, the mother is off to her job as an assistant vice president for Goodwill Industries. Jay-Dee and her younger sister, Julia, 8, get picked up for gymnastics camp by 8:45. Both girls have full schedules, including sports and competitive cheerleading. They attend a local Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi, and not long ago, the mother put in two nights volunteering at the school’s annual fund-raising carnival, running the Shooter Bonanza booth. “Keeping busy is a way to cope,” she says.

Because no one wants to worry anyone, everyone worries quietly. Ms. Comas-Phillips gets cellphone calls from Iraq a few times a week. She and her husband send e-mail messages regularly, but he says little about the dangers.

“He tries not to tell me a lot,” she says. “Anyhow, I worry.” She knows that his base gets hit with mortars; that, as a medic, he sees the worst, and that he’s the one who drives the truck when his unit goes off base to reach the wounded. “If I don’t hear from him for three or four days — no e-mails — I get nervous. I just keep e-mailing.”

She, in turn, protects the girls. “I generally don’t break down,” she says. But when her husband was home for two weeks’ leave in May and came downstairs on the last day in uniform, she says: “I started crying. We try not to get too. ...” She stopped. “If the girls see me upset,” she says, “it’ll just be harder. I’m supposed to be the rock.”

As for the girls, the mother says, “it’s mostly at night — they can’t go to sleep or bad dreams.” They have trouble understanding why their father’s at war, and no one else around seems to be. “They’ll say, ‘How come so-and-so’s daddy’s not in the war?’ ” says Ms. Comas-Phillips. The Army pays for counseling, and she took them a few times, but they didn’t like it. “They didn’t want to talk. You raise them not to talk to strangers.”

So she has built a tight support system of family and friends. Last year, they bought a house here next door to her sister Desirée Pardo. Aunt Desirée cooks for the two families each night. Her husband, Gilbert, has remodeled his brother-in-law’s kitchen while he’s away.

When Ms. Comas-Phillips knew her husband was going to Iraq, she called her father, a retired New York City transit worker living in Phoenix, and a year ago, he moved in to anchor the household. “You get this phone call from your daughter, you hear nervousness,” says Henry Comas. “I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ It’s automatic.”

She commutes an hour to her job in Queens, and switched her work day from 9 to 5 to 7 to 3, to spend more time with the girls after school. Friends like Donna Cavallaro, who lives nearby, drive Jay-Dee and Julia to their activities while their mom’s at work, and Ms. Cavallaro’s husband, Phil, a local police officer, makes extra patrols by the house.

In civilian life, Sergeant Phillips is a distribution supervisor for Coca-Cola. For the last year, the company has supplemented his National Guard salary to match what he earned there.

Ms. Comas-Phillips says that when her husband signed up for the Guard a decade ago, it was mainly a financial decision. He was thinking about extra income and a pension after 20 years. “He never even told me,” she says. “He read the literature and bought it — you know how they sell you that line — ‘just two weeks in the summer and one weekend a month.’ ”

“You know what you’re getting into,” she says, “but you always think Reserve and National Guard won’t be in the forefront.”

Asked if she supports the war, Ms. Comas-Phillips would say only, “No comment.”

This is his second deployment. After 9/11, he spent several months patrolling New York City bridges. “I’d make a picnic basket,” she says, “and the girls and I would have lunch with him on the 59th Street Bridge.”

There are no picnic trips to Baghdad, but Ms. Comas-Phillips tries to use the Internet to keep her husband close. She sent him a catalog by e-mail so he could pick out the countertops for the new kitchen. She told him what the girls wanted for Christmas; he shopped online, and had the presents sent wrapped. He visits the school Web site and can see if the girls missed their homework or have a test coming up. “He’ll say, ‘Did you study for the test?’ We try to keep him involved as much as possible,” she says.

The two met as teenagers. “He’s my best friend,” she says. “We do everything together — our kids are our world.” She thinks of him when she sees Jay-Dee off by herself on the computer. “Ben needs his time alone on the computer, too.” She misses his impulsiveness — the way he’d go out, buy the girls a trampoline and have it all assembled by the time they got home from school. He was first home from work, and she misses walking in and smelling the shrimp in butter-and-garlic sauce that he cooks.

On one recent day, he happened to call in the late afternoon. It was past midnight in Iraq. “Why are you up?” she asked. “Oh, you can’t sleep.” She told him about the girls’ day, then handed the phone to a visitor.

It was hard to know what to ask.

“Well, it’s different being over here, it’s not home,” Sergeant Phillips said. “You just go day by day.”

It must be hard? “I can’t wait to get home,” he said. “This is not a place I want to be anymore.” She took back the phone and told him they were going to the school carnival later. “Love you, too,” she said. Then she, the girls and her dad went next door to Aunt Desirée’s for dinner.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times


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