Monday, March 15, 2004

After time apart, family returns to normal

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - Today, the war in Iraq that turned the life of David and Sarah Bray upside down is something the family looks at through a rear-view mirror.

It is a memory preserved in photo albums of men in dusty camouflage uniforms and a handful of souvenirs.

Sergeant David Bray of the 478th Combat Engineer Battalion, with his wife Sarah and daughters Abby, 9, and Nikki, 16.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
On a recent night, David and Sarah sit at the kitchen table of their home in a quiet Lebanon subdivision, where Big Wheel bikes in the yards and basketball hoops on garage doors mark it as a neighborhood of young families. They flip through stacks of photos 40-year-old David, an Army Reserve sergeant, shot while he was leading a squad of the 478th Engineer Battalion in southern Iraq.

While David was halfway around the world, his wife struggled back in Lebanon to balance her full-time office job at a local manufacturing plant, family bills, the needs of two daughters, and her volunteer efforts to help other 478th families cope with their stress.

"When I look back at it, I wonder how I could have handled it all,'' Sarah explains. "But we got through it OK. And, as tough as it was, nobody was shooting at us.''

David looks across the table at her with an affectionate smile.

"She's the real sarge of the family,'' he says. "She got us all through it.''

Special section home
Coming home, changed by war
Finding purpose, perspective
Voices from the survey
Slideshow: A year in Iraq
Six weeks of war: Interactive timeline
Reconstruction of Iraq

As the one-year anniversary of the U.S. attack on Iraq approaches Friday, life is back to normal for the Brays. David is back to work selling chemical processing equipment for a Finneytown company.

Their daughters, 16-year-old Nikki and 9-year-old Abby, do their homework in their rooms while their parents talk about those five months of war while David was gone. His absence affected them all, but hit the youngest Bray especially hard.

"(Abby) was just too little to understand what was going on,'' Sarah says. "She thought he was going to be killed. She'd say things like, 'are you going to marry somebody else?'

"What do you say to something like that?'' she wonders.

More than 500 American military members have lost their lives in Iraq. So even today, six months after David and 450 other members of the 478th returned safe and sound, the couple tries to avoid talk of the possibility of another deployment. It would upset their youngest daughter too much.

"For Abby, though, that's something we're not going to deal with until we get the call,'' Sarah says.

Abby was 7 when terrorists hijacked planes and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept 11, 2001. Like millions of American children, she was deeply affected by what she saw.

That night in 2001, when Abby was put to bed, she asked her father if there would be more planes crashing into buildings. "Not if we can help it,'' her father says, knowing full well that the moment America was attacked he would likely be going to war.

In the weeks and months to follow, Nikki and Abby saw their father more and more often in his Army fatigues, jumping in the family car for the 40-mile drive to the 478th's headquarters in Fort Thomas.

Bray's Bravo Company had a regular monthly drill the weekend after the 9-11 attacks. At the reserve center, Bray pulled his squad together and had what he called a "come-to-Jesus'' meeting, a talk aimed at making his men understand in no uncertain terms what might face them.

It was a long wait for the Bray family and all the others of the 478th before the call to active duty came. On Feb. 4, 2003, the battalion was ordered to report to the reserve center. Six days later, after an emotional send-off ceremony in Fort Thomas, they were off to Ft. Campbell, Ky., for a month of training before shipping out overseas on March 10.

David's memories of being on the ground are a mix of good and bad - the good being the glee he saw on the faces of ordinary Iraqis and the gratitude they expressed; the bad being the sight of dead Iraqis in the streets of a city after a firefight, their bodies bloated in the 120-degree heat.

While her husband did his part in the war, Sarah found herself home alone taking care of the girls and struggling to pay the bills with less money coming in. Employers of military reservists called to active duty are not required by law to make up the difference between military and civilian pay.

"At first anyway, I tended to sit there all night watching Fox New over and over again, just desperate for information,'' Sarah says. "I had to convince myself to stop it.''

When her husband returned, it took a while for life to return to normal.

"Those guys came back and they were still in their Army mode,'' Sarah says, with a laugh. "He was barking orders at everybody at first. I told him, 'I'm not one of those kids in your squad. I don't follow orders.'

"But it wasn't a big deal. We were just glad to be a family again.''

About the series

The series One unit, One year later explores the impact Iraq war duty had on soldiers of the 478th Combat Engineering Battalion, Army Reserve, of Fort Thomas.

Sunday: Coming home, changed by war, soldiers reconnect with life in Cincinnati.

Tuesday: 1st Lt. Tim Nash of White Oak nearly misses the birth of his first child.

Wednesday: War delays the dreams of Hamilton couple Sgt. Anthony and Erica Harmon.

Thursday: Sgt. Mike Grob's 14-year-old daughter struggles with her father's absence.

Friday: Jimmy Wright died in Iraq. Now, his Delhi family finds solace in the son he never met.



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Margaret Ebert Anderson, 69, worked as insurance agent