1st ID moms' 'Family of One' e-mail group offers support, camaraderie
January 23, 2005
For months now, a 1st Infantry Division soldier could count on two things after stepping off a rest-and-recuperation flight from Iraq at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport: a Texas-sized hug from Donna Cranston and a Shiner Boch beer from the trunk of her car.
Cranston, 47, is the mother of Spc. Matt Cranston, a 1st ID soldier serving in Samarra. She lives near the airport and has taken it upon herself to greet every returning soldier who wears a Big Red One patch. If they need to catch a connecting flight, she personally drives them to the right terminal. If they’ve got a long layover, she takes them home and feeds them a hearty meal.
“Nothing has thrilled me more than to have a soldier riding in my convertible,” Cranston said, communicating via e-mail, as did all the 1st ID family members interviewed for this article. “They will tip their head back, look into the sky, take a deep breath and say ‘Ma’am you have no idea what a wonderful feeling this is right now!’”
Cranston is only the most visible sign of a virtual support group of 1st ID families called the “Family of One” that sprang up online shortly after the division deployed to Iraq last February.
She found like-minded support almost by accident last spring, when Barbara Holman, the mother of a Big Red One soldier, posted messages on Internet bulletin boards belonging to a 1st ID alumni society and her son’s battalion.
“Nothing in my experience ever prepared me for the sudden onslaught of fear and worry and lack of peace,” Holman said. “I was crying and tearing up over nothing, just floating through what had to be done and nothing more.”
In the months since, about 70 families from across the country stumbled on the group, drawn to the Internet by the loneliness and frustration of living while their loved ones were in a dangerous war zone. Suddenly they were in touch with others like them.
“While everyone else was going on with their daily lives, we were having trouble breathing, or wanting to cry or snapping at people,” said Kim Willoughby, 47, of Bright, Ind., whose son, Nathan, is in the 1-26 Infantry. “It was a relief to know that across this country, loved ones were experiencing these same feelings — that we were not alone.”
Most of the members are mothers, but wives, sisters, girlfriends and even a few dads also have joined. Only a few have met one another in person, and many know each other only by screen names like “Ranger Mom” and “Pambo.”
But almost all of them say they’ve forged a bond that will last long after their soldiers return home during the next three months.
“We’ve been through a lot together, becoming a true family and [forming] what I honestly believe will also be lifelong friendships,” said Missie Adamczyk, 25, of suburban Washington, whose fiancé, Capt. Michael Jurick, is serving in Iraq with the 1-26 Infantry.
Some of their exchanges are giddy and schoolgirlish. At other times, the Family of One joins together to boost someone through a rough patch.
Celeste Rubanick, 49, a Florida mail carrier and the mother of Spc. Dale Rubanick of the 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery, turned to her online friends the day she burst into tears in the middle of her route because she was sure her son had been killed. (He hadn’t.)
“We admit to these things and more in our e-mails,” Rubanick said, “and it feels wonderful to find out others feel the same way.”
Much of the time they discuss practical matters, like what to put in gift boxes and how to best wrap cookies to keep them fresh all the way to Iraq. When word comes of an attack in Bayji, Samarra or Baqouba, they burn up the Internet looking for information and post whatever news they hear from soldiers downrange.
“I was also warned about the hard stuff,” said Lee Ann Grzywa, 47, of Aurora, Ill., whose son, Joshua, is a staff sergeant in the 1-26 Infantry’s mortar platoon. “Seeing the look in your soldier’s eyes that tells you they’ve seen things you haven’t imagined.”
The Family of One has helped its members channel a desperate need to help the troops. Every one of them has shipped boxes of goodies not only to their own sons or boyfriends, but to other soldiers as well. At Christmas, they sent “secret Santa” gifts to each other’s deployed children so everyone would get an unexpected gift.
In Dallas, other Texas moms joined Cranston in greeting the R&R flights and working at the airport’s USO club. Joyce Hagens, 48, the mother of 22-year-old twin sons both serving with the 1-26 Infantry in Samarra, created a tribute wall to troops in Iraq at the rural Texas hospital where she works. They take turns writing condolence letters on behalf of the group to the family of every soldier killed in the war.
Barely two months remain in the Big Red One’s tour. So far, none of the group’s sons or daughters have been killed and only a few have suffered minor injuries despite some close calls.
“As these last few weeks wind down, we have a heightened sense of this,” Holman said. “There is a fear that something might happen at the end.”
Although the end of the deployment is finally approaching, none of the women has any plans to abandon her newfound family.
“We have all become so close. It would be like losing a very dear friend,” Hagens said.
Many in the Family of One would like to see the Army expand its family readiness groups to include more than just the spouses and children of soldiers.
“Often the military forgets that parents are family,” Holman said. “We had to create our own support. I hope others will take our group as a beacon of light.”
Some suggested sites ...
Members of the Family of One e-mail group recommend a number of Web sites for family members of deployed soldiers either to get support, or to lend support to others. Among their suggestions:
www.bigredone.org: A 1st Infantry Division alumni association, the Society of the Big Red One, offers a “family” section.
www.globalsecurity.org: Information about units, camps, the politics and geography of Iraq.
To donate money or supplies in support of troops, try www.anysoldier.com, www.woundedwarriorproject.com, and www.soldiersangels.org.
www.defendersoffreedom.us: Started by Donna Cranston, a Family of One member. A nonprofit organization that sells tie-dye wristbands and soldier calendars, with all proceeds going to help deployed or injured troops.
www.militarywives.com: Offers practical advice and support geared toward women, with special subsites for families in each service, reservists and military husbands.
www.prayercentral.net: Offers daily prayers for troops in Iraq, as well as advice and links to other helpful web site.
Source: Family of One