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Military families find comfort together

Rosemarie Fitzpatrick, left, embraces Cynthia Ventura, right, president

Rosemarie Fitzpatrick, left, embraces Cynthia Ventura, right, president of the Long Island Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, at MacArthur Airport. Fitzpatrick's son, Marine Lance Cpl. William Fitzpatrick, who returned from serving in Afghanistan, received a citation from Islip Town Councilman Gene Parrington. (Nov. 23, 2011) Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

On a Tuesday night in April, the phone rang at the Fitzpatrick home in Coram.

The voice on the other end of the line was Rosemarie Fitzpatrick's only son, Marine Lance Cpl. William Fitzpatrick. The conversation was short, she recalled.

"We're leaving," he said.

And with those words, Fitzpatrick knew her son was going to war.

"I told him to keep his head down and to be careful," she said. "And then he told me I had the power of attorney over his affairs in case something happened to him."

Since that day last spring, when her 19-year-old son boarded a plane bound for Afghanistan, the Fitzpatrick household did what all families of deployed troops do while their loved ones are in harm's way -- wait anxiously for the day they return home safely.


Bearing the Blue Star

"Blue Star" families of deployed military personnel go through emotional stresses that are almost unimaginable among nonmilitary families. Unlike parents sending children off to college, Blue Star families say goodbye fully conscious that the next phone call, the next news flash, could be devastating. At least 16 military personnel from Long Island are known to have died in Afghanistan.

During holidays, the absence of a loved one who is serving at war is even more acute. But last Wednesday night, William Fitzpatrick returned to Long Island, his Afghanistan tour finished in time for him to go home on leave and celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.

Rosemarie Fitzpatrick's story, and those of the community of Blue Star parents she joined to share emotional support, provide a window into the anxieties encountered by the small portion of American families with military children in harm's way.

An estimated 50 families are active members of the Long Island chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, according to president Cynthia Ventura, of Holtsville. And there are Blue Star fathers, as well.

One Blue Star dad is Fred Seitz, of East Islip, who on Monday helped other Blue Star parents at a Knights of Columbus hall in Center Moriches pack gift boxes for deployed troops.

The father of an Air Force sniper, Seitz said he tries to help his son, Air Force Sgt. Rick Seitz, shoulder the emotional burdens.

He shares a close relationship with his son. So when Rick confided in his father about having made his first battlefield kill, Seitz sought to comfort him, while grappling with his own emotions.

"Yes, it bothered me a lot," Seitz said. "He's putting rounds into another human being and ending his life. He wanted to know, 'Is God going to have a problem with that?' "

Experts on military culture say military families feel particularly isolated now, in part, because a smaller share of the public is serving than at any time since the start of World War II.

Over the past decade, as the military has been engaged in its longest-ever period of sustained conflict, just 0.5 percent of American adults have served on active duty at any given time, according to the Washington D.C.-based, nonpartisan Pew Research Center. And although 78 residents of Fitzpatrick's Coram neighborhood were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan as of last August, according to a Department of Defense count, more than a third of ZIP codes on Long Island had fewer than 10 residents in combat then: Only two were listed from Cedarhurst in Nassau.

Laura Fuchsius, of Sayville, also came to the Knights of Columbus to share the company of fellow Blue Star parents.

Her son, Marine Cpl. Scott Fuchsius, left for Afghanistan in September, and Fitzpatrick said that for a while she didn't want to hurt Fuchsius' feelings by letting her know William Fitzpatrick would be home for Thanksgiving.

She said when she told Fuchsius, "She giggled at me. She said, 'Your son did his time, now it's my son's time.' "


A steadying presence

Fuchsius said that, although there is no dodging the worry of having a child at war, being among people going through the same thing, particularly around holidays, has helped steady her.

"This will be my first Christmas without my whole family, and it's going to be the toughest," Fuchsius said, pausing near a table piled high with thermal socks and bars of soap waiting to be carefully packed and shipped. "But you're not alone here, because they all know what you're going through."

Military commanders say the families of deployed personnel face myriad challenges, ranging from anxiety to financial hardship. Spouses must learn to run households and raise children on their own. Children often struggle in school or display aggressive behaviors as they work out feelings of anger, rejection or fear.

"When a soldier deploys, his whole family deploys," said Col. Michael Foster, who leads 1,300 troops from the 1st Ranger Battalion, based in Savannah, Ga. He said families who live in communities associated with large military bases have access to family networks, understanding school officials, recreational programs, and other supports that the military makes available, while parents and siblings living farther away can feel no one understands what they are going through.


The toll on loved ones

Rosemarie Fitzpatrick's daughter, Ashley, became angry and depressed when her brother went off to boot camp two years ago. Her grade average in school went from around 90 into the 60s. She became frustrated with teachers she felt didn't understand what she was feeling. She snapped at classmates who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Sometimes I would just put my head down on my desk and cry," she said. "My teachers didn't know what I was going through, so they didn't know what to do. It messed up my whole school year."

Rosemarie Fitzpatrick has also struggled emotionally. She started smoking more heavily while her son was away. She put on weight. She went to bed each night with two phones on her pillow -- a land line next to one ear, her cellphone next to the other -- their ringers cranked to their highest volume.

Her doctor prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, to help her sleep, she said, but she refused, fearful she would miss a call.

Her anxiety eased last Saturday. The phone rang at 2 a.m. Her son was on the line.

"He said, 'My boots are off the sand,' " Fitzpatrick said. "Which meant he was no longer in Afghanistan."

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