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During the Iraqi War, thousands of young parents are deployed on the ground and in the air, and might remain on duty for many months. This has meant that grandparents and other caregivers have had to pitch in to help the children left at home. They are providing comfort and care to children, respite to overworked spouses, and an important sense of security to sons and daughters overseas who are happy to know that their families are getting the help they need.

Their special circumstances color the experience of these grandparents and other caregivers, whether they offer hugs or a home. They must learn to deal with a range of emotions, including their own.

When both Rich and Carissa Doctor were deployed to Qatar at the end of February, Carissa’s parents, Bob Voos, 50, and Elaine, 47, went from being empty nesters to being caregivers for five grandchildren — 2 to 14.

Son-in-law Rich is a staff sergeant with the 387th Army Reserve Unit. Daughter Carissa is a sergeant in the same unit.

The transition was easier, the Vooses say, because both families live in the small town of Russell, Kan. Baby-sitters, day care and schools didn’t change. Naturally, the grandchildren are concerned about their parents’ safety, so grandparents keep the TV news to a minimum.

They look forward to mail, an occasional phone call, and exchanging e-mail at the public library.

Bill and Jeannine Hirtle went the distance — literally — when son Jared was deployed to Iraq in February. He returned home July 4 and will be deployed again, probably in March. Jared is with the 507th, supporting the 3rd Infantry Division. He flies Medevac helicopters.

When Jared is at home, his parents make a monthly trip to visit him, his wife, Jenni, and the couple’s three children in Temple, Texas. It’s a two-hour drive. When he was away, they made the trip two or three times a week, together or separately.

“We trade off work,” Jeannine explains. She hugs, Bill handles the yard work, and they both offer emotional support.

Major Samuel Sellers, Army 431st Civil Affairs Battalion, now with the 101st Airborne, was deployed in January. His mother, Laura, joined his wife, Holly, and their 2-year-old son, also Samuel. Holly, who works full time, says her mother-in-law is “an angel. She’s certainly made the deployment easier.”

“I try to be steady and dependable,” Laura says.

As a grandmother, Laura Sellers has her own tricks for baby-sitting. “I’ve learned to sit on the floor when I play with Samuel, mostly because it’s easier to just get on the baby’s level than it is to get up and down.”

Three thousand miles away, in Baltimore, grandmother Patricia Wright says she “does my son’s part for his children while he’s away.” Spc. Lawrence Chavious is with the 3rd Armor in Iraq.

His three children live with their mother in Baltimore, but Patricia has the kids on weekends.

The oldest grandchild, Sharita, 11, was worried about her dad, and it affected her schoolwork. “Her mother and I both talked to her,” Patricia says, “and she’s doing better.” A weekly call from her dad helps a lot.

Laura Sellers says the military did prepare families with counseling and booklets. Both Laura and Holly have joined a Reserve family readiness group. They hire a baby sitter and go together. That, says Holly, is “a nice life support.” On those nights, her mother- in-law says, “We have macaroni and cheese. We just simply have to have comfort food.”

Whether it’s fixing comfort food or driving great distances, countless families do whatever they have to do. Despite the sacrifices, most caregivers agree with Laura Sellers: “The privilege far outweighs the challenges.”

Tips

The AARP Grandparent Information Center (GIC) provides information and referral to grandparents and other caregivers with publications, a support database and a free newsletter. On the Web: www.aarp.org/grandparents, or call 1-800-424-3410.

The AARP GIC’s 10 Tips for Caregivers in Wartime:

1. Allow children to ask questions whenever they want to, but don’t push.2. Provide children with opportunities to express their feelings through art, games and writing.3. Treat children as individuals, listen to them, and realize their concerns are legitimate.4. Be calm, but never lie. Kids know.5. Limit media exposure.6. Watch children for signs of stress, such as behavior change.7. Get respite care for yourself.8. Take opportunities to express your feelings away from the children.9. Get plenty of sleep; eat right; exercise.10. Join grandparent or military support groups.

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