By Melody Warnick
War Veteran Kerri LudwigWhen the soldiers burst into the cavernous hall at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, TX, Richard Ludwig couldn't see his wife. No surprise there. Even in her combat boots, 33-year-old Kerri Ludwig is just 5'4"-not tall enough to stand out among the primarily male members of the 2-43 Air Defense Artillery Battalion.
Richard scanned the ranks as the welcome-home ceremony drew to a close, and watched as sign-waving civilians embraced loved ones back from their yearlong deployment to the Middle East. Still no Kerri. It wasn't until Richard stood on a chair that the two finally spotted each other. "She ran to me and just held me for a while," Richard recalls. At last Kerri looked up and said, "Let's go home."
Kerri's fourth deployment-her toughest yet-was officially, thankfully over. It had been a very long year.
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When Kerri joined the Army in 1996, she was 18 years old and thinking more practically than patriotically. "I wanted to go to college, and the military was a way to pay for school," she says.
In 2001, however, the 9/11 attacks changed what it meant to be a soldier. At the time, Kerri was stationed in Germany, a divorced single mom caring for two sons, 5-year-old Zacheriah and 3-year-old Isaiah. After the World Trade Center attacks, the Army raised security levels at military posts around the world, so "everyday operations stopped and all we did were long patrols in 36-hour shifts," she remembers. Things got so crazy that she sent her boys to Mills River, NC, to live with her mother. By the end of the next year, Kerri was among the first wave of soldiers deployed to Iraq for her first of two back-to-back tours of duty.
What it felt like to be in a war zone was nothing she could have anticipated. The mortar fire was terrifying. When it got close, some soldiers-male and female-broke down and cried. Others would be too panicked to put on their gear correctly or run for cover. "I wasn't going to give in to the fear, though," Kerri says. "It can lead to mistakes that get you killed, and I had two boys I had to go home to." At night, she stared at the Powerpuff Girls dolls dangling above her cot-Isaiah's gift to her-and wondered when she could call home again.
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By the end of her second deployment in 2003, Kerri had decided to leave the military. She was under great stress. A fellow soldier and friend had shot himself, despite her pleading with him not to, right in front of her.
Kerri took a job as an office manager in Asheville, NC, and focused on her boys. Her two-year absence had been especially hard on Isaiah, who would rock and cry for hours in his preschool classroom. Diagnosed with anxiety, Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder and reactive attachment disorder (a condition in which young children do not develop healthy bonds with their caregivers), "Isaiah went through some serious trauma during my deployment to Iraq," Kerri says.
In 2006, Kerri started getting letters from the Army inviting her to reenlist. As a former soldier, Kerri was part of The Individual Ready Reserve, which the military has the right to recall to active duty at any time. One of her friends who had also left the military had been called back. Kerri was torn. She didn't want to leave her children, but her sense of duty called her to serve. To make her decision even more complicated, Kerri's brother-in-law, a fellow soldier, was captured and killed in Iraq that summer. Kerri took her sons to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where they witnessed firsthand the raw pain of their aunt and cousins.
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Nonetheless, Kerri knew what she had to do. "I told myself, I'm not going to fight it, I'm just going to do what's asked of me." Rather than endure a long wait for the call, Kerri reenlisted in October 2006 and was deployed to Kuwait in January 2008. Naturally, her departure was tough on her boys, who returned to Grandma's. "I worried about my mom getting hurt," Zacheriah says now. "If anything goes bad, if she gets hurt...it changes everything."
The Toughest Year Yet
Safely back from the Middle East in 2009, Kerri moved her family to Fort Bliss, where she was stationed. But after settling into regular life with her kids, she was deployed yet again last year, to bases in Qatar and Bahrain. She found herself playing the ultimate working mom, commanding a team of 20 soldiers one minute, coaching Zacheriah through tricky algebra problems by text message the next.
Her boys were then 15 and 13, and old enough to articulate how they felt about their mom's absence. On Skype calls, Zacheriah would sometimes say, "It's just not the same. I need you here." Fighting back tears, Kerri would tell him, "I'm sorry. Mom's doing her best. I'll be home when I can, but this is what we've got for right now."
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For Isaiah, the toll of Kerri's absence was much more serious. Within two weeks of her departure to Qatar, his anxiety and depression morphed into a full-on emotional breakdown. "He wanted his mother," says Della Shepard, Kerri's mom. "So he kept acting out, trying to hit me."
Kerri and Della agreed to have Isaiah hospitalized in nearby Springbook, SC, but the situation got worse. In July, Della emailed Kerri that Isaiah had fallen in with a group of older, violent kids in his program. He needed to get out of there.
Kerri wanted to make sure for herself that he would be OK. A sympathetic colonel arranged for her to go on emergency leave, and three days later at the hospital she greeted Isaiah, who was expecting his grandmother. "What the-?," he blurted, as Kerri wrapped her arms around him. She couldn't believe how much he had changed in eight months. "He was taller, he was thinner, his voice was getting deeper already," she says. And he was ready to go back to his grandmother's house.
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Kerri helped him settle in once again, and things seemed to return to a version of normal, but then she had to go back to Bahrain. "I live with guilt every day," Kerri says. "I will always question, If I didn't continue this path, would my boys have turned out different?"
A Happy Break
Kerri had even more to look forward to at home once her 2011 deployment was over: Richard Ludwig, a truck driver whom she met before she left for Qatar. The two connected through an online dating site, moved on to FaceTime and Skype chats, and finally got together in person. Richard was drawn to Kerri, who, like him, was divorced with two kids, loved sports cars and rode motorcycles. "I call her Wonder Woman, because everything she does is amazing," Richard says.
While she was overseas, Richard mailed her cards and chocolates, just so she'd know he was thinking of her, and their feelings flourished. When Kerri came home on leave in October 2011, the couple eloped. Their relationship felt like "the one bright spot in the whole year," Kerri says.
After finding each other in the crowded hall at Fort Bliss this past January, Kerri and Richard headed home to a new house and life. Her sons were meeting Richard for the first time, as Kerri was meeting Richard's two daughters, Autumn and Desirae, 16 and 10, who live with him part-time. "I had looked forward to that moment, and it felt good," Kerri says. The kids, who had gotten to know each other online, laughed and chatted. "It was almost like it was every other day, just face to face."
Of course, that was part of what Kerri calls the "honeymoon effect"-when she's first home after a deployment and her kids are on their best behavior. "It usually lasts 48 hours," she says with a laugh. Soon enough, the boys were arguing with each other and with their new siblings.
"There is a lot of adjustment," Kerri admits. "On some days, you just want to go to your bedroom and shut the door." But Kerri would take dealing with her kids' fights-one morning this spring a rock that Isaiah had hurled shattered the back window of Autumn's car-over any quiet, peaceful moment she ever had overseas.
Kerri is also reveling in the mundane joys of family life, such as Zacheriah's making the basketball team or Isaiah's passion for video games and his discussions with Richard about the impending zombie apocalypse. Family dinners are not to be taken for granted; neither is cuddle time on the couch for Kerri and Richard after the kids are in bed.
That's what makes the thought of deploying again-which could happen as soon as next January-so hard. In some ways, "Richard makes leaving easier because I know that everyone's in good hands," Kerri says. But then again, "it'll be more difficult knowing what I'm missing." Or worse, knowing that like her brother-in-law, she might not come back. "The worry that something might happen never goes away," she adds.
During her last deployment, Kerri was awarded a Bronze Star. Like many heroes, she doesn't think she deserves it. "I'm not in the same category as someone who gave their life for our country," Kerri says. But if the worst were to happen, "I just hope and pray that my kids will know that I gave the best that I had, and that I never quit. I hope that they are proud of me."
MELODY WARNICK is a freelance writer in Austin, TX.
Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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