Love and duty: Military families face sacrifices on home front
On a crisp fall afternoon, 9-yearold Virginia Bulger takes a little infield practice from Daddy outside Herndon Elementary School in Herndon,Va.Shesmoothlycatches a few short tosses and bobbles a few, too.
“I can do better when Mommy throws it,” she yells to her father, Maj. Patrick Bulger.
Another such father-daughter moment is not likely to be repeated for a year.
Maj. Bulger, 39, is among about 500 members of the Virginia Army National Guard called to active duty in support of a NATO-led international force to maintain security in Kosovo.
Military families face daily challenges that are foreign to most civilians. The Washington Times recently spent several days with the Bulgers and two other military families. These are their stories.
Maj. Bulger, a staff general officer with the 29th Division of the Virginia Army National Guard, coordinates logistics and serves as an assistant to his task force commander, Brig. Gen. Douglas B. Earhart. He will return home for a brief period over Easter, but his deployment to Kosovo is scheduled to last until next November.
Maj. Bulger’s wife, Courtney, is managing the home front alone as their blonde and boisterous daughters — Virginia and 6-year-old Emma—gotoschool,participatein Girl Scouts and grow a year older in his absence.
Maj. Bulger is acutely aware of how the deployment pulls at his allegiances.
“They’ve been paying me since college to get ready to do something like this, so I feel it’s the right thing to do,” says Maj. Bulger, a project control analyst at Science Applications International Corp., who attended the University of Virginia on an ROTC scholarship. “Then you call home, and there’s a fight over homework. You feel like a miserable slug because you’re not there to mediate that.”
The deployment, the major’s first in 16 years with the National Guard, will test his mettle in a dangerous region. It also will test the strength of his family at home.
“It’s a ‘Catch 22’ for a wife when you see your husband the happiest he’s been in 12 years of marriage, but it’s also going to be the hardest thing on us,” Mrs. Bulger, 39, says.
The energetic mother also manages business relations for Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools and hopes to run for political office one day.
In her husband’s absence, Mrs. Bulger must assume all of the duties in their 50-50 partnership, including Maj. Bulger’s responsibilities of cooking dinner and shopping for groceries.
Despite such changes, the Bulgers don’t expect his assignment in Kosovo to create the sort of financial hardships endured by many other families of the nearly 80,000 Army Guard and Reserve troops now deployed.
The Bulger home
Mrs. Bulger hired a live-in au pair to help get the two girls to school and to extracurricular activities, such as Brownies and dance class.
She also found some positives in the trying situation, including the opportunity to forge deeper relationships with her daughters — which might not be so easy.
“I [now] have to be 100 percent the love source,” Mrs. Bulger says. “But I also have to be 100 percent the disciplinarian.”
On a quiet evening soon after Maj. Bulger’s departure, the Bulger home appears to be a picture of normal.
Emma and Virginia divide their time between homework and the Disney Channel, while Mrs. Bulger fulfills a dinner request by grilling steaks.
Mrs. Bulger, who says her husband calls every day, is happy to know he is interested in the details of their everyday lives.
Still, the worry is apparent in her tone.
“I try to stay as busy as I can,” she says. “The hardest time is weekends and family time.”
And holidays. For Halloween, the girls’ godparents took them trick-or-treating, with Emma dressed as a witch and Virginia, a self-described “Army brat,” in full camouflage.
For Thanksgiving, Maj. Bulger wasn’t there to carve the turkey. The family instead had dinner at the home of a friend.
“It’s hard to be without Daddy,” says Virginia, looking at the empty couch in the family’s living room. “I miss him sitting right there watching football and hiding the remote from him.”
Mrs. Bulger, with the help of family and friends, tries to maintain the routine of sports activities, homework and hikes.
“We’re Team Bulger,” she says. “We kind of laugh, but the three girls — we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna survive.”
Johnnie and Tami
The marriage of Army Master Sgt. Johnnie F. Hillis and Sgt. Tami Reiman is far from one of convenience.
“We’re used to changing timelines,” says Sgt. Reiman, 32, sitting in an empty classroom on the grounds of Fort Meade, where she and her husband are stationed. “It’s part of your lifestyle.”
Indeed, Sgt. Hillis, a broadshouldered military police officer, has been deployed nine times in 16 years.
Sgt. Reiman, a farmer’s daughter who teaches editing at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, has been in the military for 12 years. That includes a mission to Iraq.
The couple met in a military course at Fort Carson, in Colorado. She sat behind him in class. Their first date: a drive around a lake and a meal from Quizno’s, topped off by ice cream.
“We just started talking,” says Sgt. Hillis, 36. “It took like four or five months, because she’s really shy.”
Their five years together, including three as husband and wife, have seen sacrifices and compromises — ones that civilians might find hard to understand.
To be stationed together at Fort Meade, Sgt. Hillis accepted a deployment to South Korea with the 728th Military Police Battalion, which ran the security mission in the southern sector of the country. He left shortly after the couple’s wedding — a modest event at the courthouse in Ellicott City, Md. — and was overseas for most of the first year of their marriage.
“It’s an interesting relationship because you sort of have to give a little, get a little,” Sgt. Hillis says.
That’s a pattern. The Fort Meade assignment was to benefit Sgt. Reiman’s career. Sgt. Hillis’ next assignment will take him to Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he will be trained in upper-level management and placed in line for a promotion.
Sgt. Reiman’s next assignment looks as if it will send her to Fort Stewart in Georgia, where the couple initially had been assigned together. But both are optimistic the orders will change and that they won’t be separated.
“It would sort of stink if she were to go to Georgia, and I’m in Texas,” Sgt. Hillis says. “We’d have to have two separate households.”
When Sgt. Reiman returned in the summer from spending 63 days in Iraq teaching a course in public affairs to Iraqi officers, her husband was departing for classes at Fort Bliss. They saw each other for five days in Texas, while Sgt. Reiman was returning her gear.
“Every time we go and leave, she cries. She makes me cry,” Sgt. Hillis says. “But I’m not going to slow down her career.”
More than 2,800 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to the Defense Department. The sound of mortar shells exploding in the distance didn’t faze Sgt. Reiman when she was there. Missing her husband did.
“It is tough,” Sgt. Reiman says. “You have to have strong communication. That was the key for us, being able to talk.”
To help pass the time during her deployment, Sgt. Hillis remodeled their four-bedroom house in Glen Burnie. Sgt. Reiman had
bought it during her husband’s time in South Korea.
“I try to impress her still,” Sgt. Hillis says. “It’s always good to impress your wife. Then she’ll keep you.”
And while he was at Fort Bliss, she papered walls and replaced cabinets. The couple expects the remodeling to be completed by this month and plans to sell the house before their next move.
Their home represents a personal life not touched by the military. The couple chose to move off base with a combined allotment of $2,700 per month for housing elsewhere.
A photo of the couple at Lake Tahoe is a reminder of the day Sgt. Hillis proposed.
“You appreciate the time you have together,” Sgt. Reiman says. “Even if it is only a day.”
It’s tough for Sgt. Patrick Galvin’s wife, Jolyn, and their three children when he is deployed, even by military standards.
Sgt. Galvin, 35, is assistant fire chief at Andrews Air Force Base, and his deployments often land him in the heart of danger.
Last year, he was deployed with five others from the Andrews fire station for hazardous-materials operations in Afghanistan and Qatar. That deployment, from January until May, was his eighth overseas mission in 14 years.
“It’s hard with having the kids and where he goes,” Mrs. Galvin, 33, says. “There’s always the worry that if something happens, how do I explain that to the kids? You just don’t dwell on it.”
Eldest child Patrick — or “P” as his mother calls him — was diagnosed at 8 with high-functioning autism. Patrick is now 12, and the only signs of the neurological disorder are a serious nature and a not-so-unusual aversion to homework.
“Schoolwork is hard for him because he gets bored very easily,” Mrs. Galvin says. “His easy reading is encyclopedias.”
Patrick speaks slowly and distinctly when talking about Dad’s deployments, made somewhat easier by the technology of video e-mails.
“It’s kind of hard. I worry about him,” says Patrick, whose upstairs bedroom is lined with Transform- ers toys. “But I try to make the best of it. I play and try to keep it off my mind.”
He also helps in his role as big brother to Victoria — a bubbly 4year-old with her mother’s big, brown eyes — and Joey, the couple’s 9-year-old middle child, who has Down syndrome.
“When Joey wouldn’t lay still for an EKG, Patrick took his hand and said, ‘Lay still, and you’ll be done,’ ” Mrs. Galvin says. “He did.”
Joey’s health problems have been the Galvins’ biggest challenge, but the situation also made the family strong and close.
A gangly boy with a sweet smile, Joey had open-heart surgery to repair a missing wall when he was 6 months old. A feeding tube, an oxygen tank and about 10 surgeries later, he is as active as other children his age and gladly shows off his surgical scars.
Arriving home from school, Joey rushes into the open arms of Mrs. Galvin and his siblings, then sheds his jacket and changes into his favorite dinosaur shirt.
Joey, Patrick and Victoria seem to play well together, whether it’s batting practice in the back yard or chasing a tiny rabbit that has made its own home behind the Galvins’ house.
“Society has made it that you say ‘mentally retarded’ and it’s such a bad thing,” says Mrs. Galvin, who is a classroom aide for disabled students at nearby Tanglewood Regional Center.
“They’re still people,” she says. “They still have feelings and want to be loved like anyone else. Sometimes, people put the disability before their being a child.”
Military life, with all its sacrifices, also has helped the Galvins care for Joey. The government covers the bulk of the hospital bills, and living on the base creates a network of friends, co-workers and neighbors.
Joey’s heart surgery alone would have cost the Galvins more than $250,000. Instead, they paid roughly $250.
When doctors said the wood floorsinanearlierbasehomewould have to be replaced with carpet to accommodate Joey’s physical therapy,maintenancecrewscompliedat no cost to the family.
“It’s been a huge relief,” Mrs. Galvin says.
Still, the Galvins, like other military families, pay a different sort of price.
“What seems to be getting harder for me is being away from the children, missing the birthdays and stuff like that, watching them grow up,” Sgt. Galvin says. “That seems to be getting harder, going away each time.”
“This is our life,” Mrs. Galvin adds. “You learn to kind of grin and bear and adjust.”
Maj. Patrick Bulger, 39, got to spend some time with daughter Emma, 6, at her sister’s softball game at Herndon Elementary School. Left behind when he went to Kosovo, Mrs. Bulger and their two daughters have united as “Team Bulger.”
Sisters Emma, 6, and Virginia Bulger, 9, got a big hug Oct. 8 from their father, Maj. Patrick Bulger of the Virginia Army National Guard at Washington Dulles International Airport. Maj. Bulger was arriving home after two months in Indianapolis, where he was trained for deployment to Kosovo. Maj. Bulger spent one week at home before shipping out.
Jolyn Galvin shares a mommy moment in May with daughter Victoria, 4, at home on Andrews Air Force Base. Her husband, Air Force Sgt. Patrick Galvin, was deployed to Qatar at the time. The Galvins also have two sons with health problems.