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Stephanie Holmes in the library at the Theresa Primary School in Theresa, N.Y., where she works as a substitute teacher.
Stephanie Holmes in the library at the Theresa Primary School in Theresa, N.Y., where she works as a substitute teacher. (Joe Gromelski / S&S)
Stephanie Holmes in the library at the Theresa Primary School in Theresa, N.Y., where she works as a substitute teacher.
Stephanie Holmes in the library at the Theresa Primary School in Theresa, N.Y., where she works as a substitute teacher. (Joe Gromelski / S&S)
1st Lt. Chris Holmes takes a break from a communications exercise at Fort Drum.
1st Lt. Chris Holmes takes a break from a communications exercise at Fort Drum. (Joe Gromelski / S&S)

PREVIOUS STORY:The Holmeses: Independence discovered

FORT DRUM, N.Y. — Stephanie Holmes watched her husband, the man whose return from Iraq she had thought about, dreamed of and wished for with all her heart every day for more than a year.

Had he really just spilled sugar on the floor, then kicked it around with his foot?

It had been about six weeks since 1st Lt. Chris Holmes had returned from deployment near Tikrit to the home she had painstakingly made for them, starting with an empty shell.

“You don’t clean up anything!” 22-year-old Stephanie said. “You don’t care about the house. You don’t care about me.”

“You treat me like a child,” Chris, 25, snapped back, “and quite frankly, I’ve arrested terrorists.”

He’d been gone 14 months. She had changed. He had changed. But he was still a slob.

The argument was one in a series, all based on the same feelings — and all very familiar to military couples around the world grappling with the messy details of learning to live with a spouse all over again after the return from a long deployment.

See multimedia, including the series overview, video and links to past stories.

Who is this person, and why is he messing up my stuff? Stephanie would wonder. Why doesn’t he appreciate everything I have done for him?

Who is this person, ignorant of the dangerous, stressful, heartbreaking work I’ve been doing? Chris would think. Why is she concerned with such small matters?

After weeks of tension and arguments, there was a breakthrough.

“You’ve been out of the loop,” Stephanie said.

“Then let me in,” Chris replied.

“OK, if you let me in,” Stephanie answered.

Stephanie, a veterinary technician and substitute teacher, turned 21 while her husband was in Iraq. They’ve known each other forever, come from the same small Pennsylvania town, are college educated and share conservative values. They adore each other.

Yet after Chris had spent more than a year at war and Stephanie had spent the same time growing more independent, coming back together was difficult.

What started as “The Return of the King,” Stephanie said, soon became “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as she wondered who this new guy was — and what had happened to the man who’d gone away.

It was a long, cold winter as the couple negotiated their new realities.

According to Chris, the change in his wife’s personality — from shy little Steph to the capable, vivacious woman she’d become in his absence — was a good thing.

“It always sort of annoyed me that she was so shy,” he said. “It was nice she was acting more like an independent adult.”

But the changes she saw in him, he said, were more problematic.

“The problem was, I think she remembered me a particular way,” he said. “I couldn’t revert back.”

He’s not even sure what that particular way was: Less cynical, maybe; less serious, probably; more chatty and congenial.

“He talks politics all the time now and I can’t stand it,” Stephanie said. “He’s so pessimistic.”

Chris says his wife is “the only one I can really be myself with.” Yet she felt he had shut her out from his deepest thoughts. He was unwilling or unable to discuss what he’d been through in Iraq.

“If I brought up [Tyler] Pickett (the staff sergeant in Chris’ unit who was killed in a suicide truck bombing), he’d say, ‘We’re not talking about that,’ ” she said.

“I think he feels very guilty, he feels responsible. I think he carries that in him and he always will.”

Still, their arguments always ended with reassurances that they were solid, that they would never leave each other, that they would work it out.

“Even when you’re arguing, at least you’re together,” Chris said. “We hate being apart from one another.”

Meanwhile, Stephanie grew more sour on Army life.

Chris was home but still gone, in the field or just at work 15 hours a day. And she wasn’t interested in spouse activities.

“I’m still that rebel wife who doesn’t participate in anything,” she said. “I don’t want to be told where to live. I don’t want to be forced to do ‘volunteer’ activities. I don’t want to watch my friends leave. I don’t want to raise my kids in that setting.”

Chris agreed. He’s a homebody, he said, tired of travel, and he plans to resign his commission next year. He’d like to work for a federal law enforcement agency or a gun manufacturer or almost anything that would provide him more time with his wife.

“In my country’s time of need, I stepped up and my guys stepped up,” he said. “We did what most Americans have never done. It was a lot of fun. But a lot of bad times, too.

“I remember being out there thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get out of the Army.’ ”

By last spring, Stephanie was pregnant. The couple was ecstatic.

“We told everybody, even people we didn’t know,” Stephanie said. “It was too exciting.”

They window-shopped immediately for baby furniture, discussed the merits of a boy or a girl.

“I’m like, ‘Maybe we’ll have a boy and a girl and we’ll all be happy and things will be great,’ ” Stephanie said.

Stephanie miscarried during her fifth week.

Yet the profound sadness and disappointment over that loss brought the couple closer together. Now they’re trying again. “Chris is going to make a great dad,” Stephanie said.

By July, Stephanie said, things were wonderful.

“Our relationship is so much stronger,” she said. “We just get it now.”

Chris, she said, had let go of anger he’d returned home with.

“He is the old Chris again, and he doesn’t even realize it,” she said. “He’s made a complete 180. He still doesn’t clean, but that’s just him.”

Migrated
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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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