VICENZA, Italy — It’s not easy when your dad’s off fighting a war.
“We used to go to the gym and stuff,” said 14-year-old Stanley Douglas Jr., whose father, Sgt. 1st Class Stanley Douglas Sr. of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Brigade, was sent to Iraq in March.
“He’s real nice — you could talk to him about anything. I kind of feel different now, like I’m the man of the house and stuff.
“I’m scared,” Stanley said. “Like if he never comes back, life is going to be real hard.”
Many kids in Vicenza have been put in a tough spot. Their fathers and mothers will be gone until spring. Some news reports from Iraq are of suicide bombings and soldiers dying.
Spouses aren’t the only ones left behind on the home front.
Annette Evans, chief of the Family Support Division of Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Vicenza, said it helps that military kids are resilient.
They’re used to moving every two or three years, to changing schools and scenery, she said. But Operation Iraqi Freedom has affected them differently.
“I think they want to express their support more than in the past,” Evans said. “They’re anxious to express their feelings more so in this deployment and we want that. Even if it’s anger, we want them to express that.
“The [children] who aren’t acknowledging their feelings are the ones we want to reach out to the most.”
People like Tammy Hospodarsky and Elliot Oliver are in place to help keep kids busy. They’re college students from the States with Camp Adventure, a program that keeps kids busy with activities such as arts and crafts, cooking, chess and checkers and sports.
Each has spent several summers overseas keeping the kids of the troops busy.
“Having fun — that’s our job,” Hospodarsky said. “We get their minds on having fun. They’re kids — they deserve it.”
“These kids have been here waiting by the front door for four months,” Oliver said. “Sometimes they act like they’re 30 years old. They’ve got to get back down to the age they’re at.”
Some kids aren’t old enough to know the difference.
Isabella Monticelli, 5 months, will have to wait to get to know her dad, Spc. Pietro Monticelli of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, who deployed in March, a few days after Isabella was born.
“He hasn’t been here for any of her monumental milestones,” said Cindy Monticelli, Isabella’s mother and Pietro’s wife. “She’s rolled over, started food, started teething. I fear she will be up and walking before he gets back.
“She doesn’t know his smell or his touch. She’s not had him give her a bath or play with her.”
Isabella isn’t old enough to know about the bad things happening in the world. Other children sort of know.
Caleb Staley is the son of Pfc. Darrell Staley of Company Charlie, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment. Little Caleb is old enough to tell anyone who asks, “My daa-dee-rak.” That’s toddler talk for, “My daddy is in Iraq.”
But Caleb doesn’t understand war, peacekeeping and other weighty matters. His mom said Caleb thinks his daddy is “just working.”
“He misses his dad,” Rachel Staley said. “He’ll get upset and start crying and ask, ‘Where’s daddy?’”
Caleb isn’t the only one who misses Darrell Staley. Two-year-old Faith is growing up fast, and 3-month-old Darrell Jr. hasn’t even met his daddy.
“[Caleb] likes to play rough and stuff and I can’t do that,” Rachel Staley said. “They all used to get so excited when he came home from work.
“It was the highlight of their day.”
Now, mommy has to pack all three kids into the family car just to run to the store for milk or diapers.
Margie Mayville’s dad is an important guy — Col. William Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Margie, 13, has the benefit of occasionally seeing her father with her own eyes.
“When I see him on the news it makes me happy,” Margie said. “But it’s kind of scary, though, to think about what he does every day.”
Whether they’re privates or colonels, all dads and moms are important to their children. For her part, Margie said she misses the kayaking trips she used to take with her father.
“It’s just really weird,” she said. “Whenever I walk into my dad’s office, no one’s in there. It’s like an abandoned base here.”
Margie’s advice to her fellow war orphans: “Don’t think about it for too long. Just be sure you know they’re out there for a reason and are doing their job.”
Master Sgt. Ed Coufal of the 31st Security Forces at Aviano Air Base, about 90 miles north of Vicenza, has already come back.
Coufal was deployed in March, a few days after his son Daniel’s first birthday.
“Before, when I’d get home and talk to my wife, he was barely walking,” Coufal said. “Now I see a 2½-foot child run past me.”
Little Daniel was a bit standoffish to Daddy when he first got back. Things are better now.
“You have a certain relationship with a child — holding him, spending time,” Coufal said. “I guess it was the newness and not knowing me.”
Caneatra Mallory knows her father, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Mallory of the 1st Battalion of the 508th Infantry Regiment is “in Iraq somewhere.”
Sunday dinners aren’t the same without him. Steak is her dad’s favorite.
“We used to get together at the table to discuss our days,” said the 17-year-old. “We’d all busy, busy, busy. But he’d make us stop and sit down and eat dinner.
“I have dreams of him like he’s home, but I don’t have nightmares.”
Her 14-year-old brother, Mike, said his dad’s absence has made him more independent and taught him not rely on his parents for everything.
But some things he can’t do on his own.
“I miss him taking me on father-son trips like in Germany and different places around Italy,” Mike said, “and being able to talk with him about girls and stuff.”
Little Isabella Monticelli has to go without those comforts for the time being. Her father, Pietro, isn’t due home until March.
“When she wakes up in the night crying, he’s not there to comfort her,” Monticelli said. “She’s missing that bonding and attention that’s so vital in the first year.”
Isabella has grown up, so far, around women. Monticelli said her daughter gets pouty-faced around strange men.
“In general she’s very friendly and outgoing,” Monticelli said. “We’re hoping when he gets home … she won’t know he’s Papa, but will still be very friendly and outgoing with him.”
More families going home
More families than usual seem to have left Vicenza to spend summer in the United States, according to Suzi Boydston, wife of Chief Petty Officer Keith Boydston of American Forces Network South.
“The people I’ve been in contact with just wanted to be closer to their own families — the deployed soldier’s parents, the kids’ grandparents,” Suzi Boydston said. “My guess is that without a spouse here, there really isn’t any reason to be around.”
Boydston said there are a lot of family-support groups in Vicenza that are helping out.
But for many, there is no substitute for family.
Sad news at the Post Office
Military post offices have gotten a lot of attention during Operation Iraqi Freedom because delivery downrange has sometimes been slow.
“We have people who will mail a box or two or three every day,” said Lt. Tara Buonaiuto, platoon leader and postal officer for the 510th Postal Platoon in Vicenza.
But Buonaiuto pointed out that mail workers have their own personal issues.
“There’s been a lot of worried and gloomy faces when the Stars and Stripes story came out saying the 173rd wasn’t coming home until April,” Buonaiuto said. “All but one of my female employees has a husband downrange. They were huddled over there around the newspaper all sad about it.”
Buonaiuto said the families of the Southern European Task Force and 22nd Area Support Group are supporting each other.
“It’s a really tight community and we stick by each other’s sides,” Buonaiuto said. “Everybody’s proud of everyone here. There’s a lot of spirit.”
Fewer jobs, fewer tips
Teenagers have suffered at the hand of Vicenza’s soft economy since March with the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I’ve been trying to get a job here [at the food court] for five months and finally got one,” said 18-year-old Daniel DiPaola.
DiPaola said fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins normally hire at will. But lately there aren’t many customers — or help-wanted signs.
Anthony Migliore, 17, a bagger at the Vicenza commissary, said the Iraqi deployment has lightened his wallet.
“I used to get like $70 a day [in tips],” Migliore said. “Now I get $40, maybe $50. On payday we might get $100 — now we’re lucky to get $60.”
— Charlie Coon