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‘Homefront’ knows pain of deployment

By SETH ROBBINS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 30, 2008

The uniformed soldiers just outside the doorway need not say a word — the spouse inside already knows what they are about to say.

It is a painful and familiar scene, one played out often in fiction. But what was life like at home, before the fateful knock?

Kristen J. Tsetsi tries to tackle that question in her novel "Homefront," the story of Mia, a young woman separated from her boyfriend, Jake, a helicopter pilot who has deployed to Iraq.

The book, published in 2007, has received positive comments from members of the military community. Tsesti, a former newspaper reporter and English teacher, learned the pain of separation when her boyfriend and now her husband, Capt. Ian Feyk, deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He has since left the military.

"The only thing worse than finding out your loved one is dead is waiting for that news," Tsetsi said in a phone interview from her home near Nashville, Tenn. "One of the major reasons I wrote this book was to show people the complex nature of it."

Tsetsi’s Mia feels not only the obligatory sadness and loneliness from being separated from Jake, she also sends him mercurial rants, refuses to answer his phone calls, fights with him over the time he spends talking to his mother and even finds herself wishing he were dead, if only to regain a bit of control over her life.

"I can’t be mad, can I?" Mia writes Jake in an unsent e-mail. "I don’t get to be mad. You’re at war after all. Anything I feel is inconsequential."

Mia wars with her own thoughts as her mind drifts from Jake, thoughts that vary from the taste of fast food — something deployed Jake can’t have — to what the supermarket stock boy’s neck might feel like were she to bury her head in it. Even innocent thoughts are guilt-ridden, followed by pangs of anxiety that Jake could be killed that instant.

Tsetsi’s details are the things that ring truest about "Homefront": a clock Mia sets to Iraqi time; the grit on Jake’s letters, which smell like "sweat and mud."

Handwritten letters, the author says, can be a far superior way to communicate with a spouse who is downrange. "A letter, you can touch and you can feel," Tsesti said. "E-mails are so brief, and deployment phone calls can cut out. Plus, what’s more exciting for your soldier at mail call then receiving a letter, instead of only bills?"

While "Homefront" is fiction, Tsetsi acknowledges that the parallels to her own experience are strong: Dates in the book correspond exactly to the 2003 deployment milestones of her husband; Tsetsi once was a cabdriver, a job Mia holds in the book; and Tsetsi, too, lived near Tennessee’s Fort Campbell, Ky., while Feyk was downrange.

The difference, she said, is in the dialogue. "None of the conversations (in the book) actually happened," she said. "What is true are the emotions you get from Mia and several ways people deal with loss of grief."

In one painful scene, Mia’s friend, Denise, confesses that it is impossible to tell her husband that she is having an affair because he is always deployed, or just returning from a war zone.

"When no time is the right time, what do you do?" Denise asks Mia. She empathizes, she says, with women who simply pack up and sneak away while their husbands are downrange.

Tsetsi’s advice for spouses about to experience their first deployments is to not set a schedule or deadline as to when life should feel normal again.

"Enjoy the better days and ride through the bad ones because you’re going to have them," she said.

While she thinks that Family Readiness Groups can be helpful, she says they are not for everyone and they don’t always welcome partners who are not legally married, as was the case with Tsetsi in 2003.

"As much as you can talk about it," she said, "it’s still an isolating, heavy feeling that you can’t get rid of, and it’s something everyone must ultimately go through alone."

But, for some, this book can be a good companion.


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