Here is my story and its a long one but please read it all the way thorugh
FORT BRAGG, N.C. During the worst of Bravo Troop's 15-month tour in Iraq, when soldiers were dying in bunches, families here poured out their fear, frustrations and even hysteria onto one young woman: Bana Miller.
She's not Army. She's not trained. Her only qualification, then at age 24, was being an officer's wife who volunteered to run Bravo Troop's Family Readiness Group a job of e-mailing and organizing potluck dinners in peacetime.
But when Bravo went to war, she became a social worker, grief counselor and a 24-hour hotline overnight. At various times, wives threatened to commit themselves to a mental institution or go to the media if Miller did not help bring their husbands home.
"I was in this alternative universe thinking: 'What has my life become?' " says Miller, who grew up in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and married the boy she met in seventh grade.
As the Iraq war nears a sixth year, the Army has more than 3,000 volunteers such as Bana Miller, and many are buckling under the pressure of duties that they never expected would be so hard or last so long. The Army and Marine Corps lean on these family support volunteers to be the first stop for families struggling to deal with war, separation and loss.
"Two volunteer leaders had to step down because they needed a break," says Lisa Meyers, the wife of a command sergeant major in the 82nd Airborne and a supervising volunteer leader here. "Most of the leaders are on their third or fourth deployment back-to-back."
Miller persevered for more than 12 months. Within two few weeks after Capt. Matthew Miller came home Oct. 29, she readily handed off the job to another wife.
Volunteer burnout has touched Army and Marine Corps bases nationwide, says Fonta Footman-Mitchell, director of volunteer services for the National Military Family Association, a support and advocacy group with liaisons at U.S. military installations. From 5% to 7% of the association's own volunteers also have quit, she says.
Though neither could provide statistics, the Army and Marine Corps are seeing an increase in turnover among volunteers, according to Marine Lt. Col. Jacqueline Melton, head of family readiness programs, and William Bradner, a spokesman for the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.
Melton says the increasing turnover in volunteers stems from "the demands of wartime operations."
Volunteers grow weary of "not knowing when (combat missions) will end," Bradner says.
The problem, says Melton, is that the volunteer programs are "based on a peacetime model with normal deployment cycles and largely supported on the backs of our dedicated volunteers."
The Army and Marines, whose troops bear the brunt of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, are trying to ease pressures.
The Marines, Melton says, are spending $30 million over two years to shift from volunteers to paid staff members. The Army is spending $45 million to hire about 1,000 full-time workers to help some volunteers, Bradner says.
Some say the Army could go even further.
"If I had my wish of wishes, all the (volunteer family support programs) would be run by paid employees," says Michele Votel, wife of Brig. Gen. Joe Votel, assistant division commander for the 82nd Airborne Division.
War is 'uncharted territory'
Volunteerism is essential to military installations. At the core are those who support military families wives helping other wives and servicemembers' parents in most cases. The Army calls them Family Readiness Groups (FRGs). The Marines have the Key Volunteer Network.
They are structured along military lines, often with the wife of a division commander overseeing family support within the division, the wife of a brigade commander doing the same at that level and so on. In the Army where half the soldiers are married and families are prevalent the structure extends to the company or troop level, where volunteers deal directly with the spouses or parents.
In peacetime, the job is alerting families to services and news about the unit, and arranging meetings.
"It would be similar to your church," Meyers says. "Your congregation steps up to help that's what an FRG does."
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought new stresses, Marine and Army leaders found.
"For 500,000 spouses and 700,000 children, six years of war is uncharted territory," Army Secretary Pete Geren told an Association of the United States Army audience in October. "Our family support systems did not contemplate the operational tempo our families are experiencing today."
Despite many resources for families, including a 24-hour Military OneSource help line for anything from counseling to financial advice, officials saw a trend developing. Troubled wives gravitate to other wives the FRG or Key volunteers.
"It does seem paradoxical," Bradner says. "We've got this volunteer being the face of the Army."
Recruiters promise that the military will take care of families, so wives assume their FRG or Key volunteer will help with anything from fixing a flat tire to babysitting. Demands grow more frantic with deployments and casualties.
"They forget that we all have children or work or have our own husband in combat," says Beth Poppas, a battalion-level FRG leader here. "And they call you at all hours of the night. You want to do things for them. I try to be helpful. It just gets to the point where you just can't take it anymore."
Volunteers are told by the Army and Marine Corps to be dispassionate provide resource contacts to troubled families and send them on their way. But volunteers find this difficult, particularly when they all have spouses fighting side by side in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"They take it upon themselves to mother everyone," Meyers says.
"When somebody is in pain," Miller says, "my first reaction is to help alleviate that pain and to help them grieve in whatever way they grieve, just holding their hand while they're going through a funeral process, or fielding phone calls or whatever they needed me to do. I was the person there to give them a hug.
"It's a difficult thing to try and turn off and say, 'You know, I need to go home and get some sleep.' "
'I was breaking down'
Raised in the tended colonial villages of Main Line, Miller says she never envisioned a military life, much less becoming the go-to person for dozens of anxious military wives and parents.
She is the daughter of Jordanian immigrants her father a former senior associate dean at Villanova University's School of Business and her mother a child psychologist. Bana Najdawi, the oldest of three, met Matt Miller in middle school and they dated through high school.
Matt's grandfather is a retired Army colonel, and his dream was to join the military. While Matt went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Bana studied communications at Syracuse University. They married after graduation on Oct. 30, 2004, shortly before Matt was posted to Fort Bragg.
They live off post, and she took a public relations job in Raleigh, N.C. "We kind of just wanted to create our own lives," she says. "We didn't want the Army to take over."
As Bravo Troop prepared to go to Iraq last year, however, it needed an FRG leader. Because the commander of Matt's unit was unmarried and Matt is Bravo's executive officer, Bana Miller volunteered.
Soon, soldiers' wives began contacting her for almost anything.
"We had people calling up saying, 'I need to get a trampoline set up in my backyard,' " says Miller, who politely referred them to Army services or suggested that a neighbor help.
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced at a news conference in April that combat tours would be extended to 15 months, eight families called Miller at work in 15 minutes demanding more information. In 24 hours, three dozen families would weigh in by phone or e-mail, anxious to know more. Miller had nothing to tell them.
"They thought this was my full-time job, that I was getting paid to do it. It's not," Miller says. "I'm working 60 hours a week. But I'm also working 30 to 40 hours a week as an FRG leader."
Nothing, however, would prepare her for how to deal with combat and casualties.
In 15 months of fighting in Diyala province north of Baghdad, the 5th Squadron, with Bravo Troop, would suffer nearly 40% casualties among its 300 soldiers. Twenty-two were killed, half in Bravo Troop. Five paratroopers would earn Silver Stars. A sixth would be recommended posthumously for a Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
In one April day, nine Bravo Troop soldiers would be wiped out in a single attack.
Bravo's first fatality on Nov. 16, 2006, was Matt's best friend, Capt. John "Ryan" Dennison, who was shot to death by insurgents.
After the Army officially notified next-of-kin about a soldier's death, Bana Miller had to inform other families in Bravo Troop about the loss of life calls known as red-line message.
"The first that I made I was breaking down," she says. Co-workers drove her home.
Back home in Bryn Mawr that Thanksgiving, her family saw her react to news reports of casualties. "I mean she was shaking, physically shaking immediately after the news segment," recalls her younger brother, Hume Najdawi.
An 'overwhelming' situation
By Christmas 2006, as casualties mounted, wives were calling Miller demanding that husbands be sent home. One threatened to and finally did go to a local television station to complain. Another said she might miscarry and would have herself committed if her husband did not return.
"I tried to talk her through it," Miller says. "There was only so much that I could do."
With each news story about attacks, Miller was flooded with calls.
"They were all these people who are demanding and hysterical," she recalls. "It's understandable because people just want information, and they're not getting it."
Meanwhile, her job and her volunteer work collided.
"I tried to make the balance as best I could," she said. "But at the same time when you have somebody crying on the phone, or a lot of times I was a mother's only contact for information about her son it was a definite balancing act."
Miller says she was too close to the problem to find fault with it.
"I could never sit back and get perspective," she says. "I certainly wasn't the only FRG leader going through it. I never stopped to question it."
Friends saw mounting strain.
"She was tired, stressed out and worried the whole time," recalls former Syracuse classmate and close friend Robin Nathan of Atlanta. "She had to keep it together because she had all these people depending on her."
Miller worked the phones delivering red-line messages. Four squadron paratroopers were killed on March 25, 2007; four on April 7.
"It's not a job that I wanted to do. I didn't want to be calling and saying, 'I'm sorry, there's been another casualty,' " she says.
One family called back, railing for 15 minutes that Miller had ruined their Easter with such news.
"I just let them say it," she says.
Others praised her for helping them feel connected to their soldier. Miller was learning she had a way with people.
Across continents, Matt and Bana Miller comforted each other by satellite phone, sometimes just listening to the other's breathing, not saying a word. "We just both needed the other person," Matt says.
He says her job was made more difficult because problems at home can have ripple effects on the war front. "Any break in teamwork or frustrations between people back home just caused almost a mirror effect" in Iraq, he says.
Last April was especially difficult. A suicide truck driver detonated his explosive-laden vehicle outside a compound in the village of As Sadah, killing nine Bravo soldiers. It took three days for the Army to reach all nine families for formal notification. Meanwhile, other families lived in terror that someone would come knocking, and they hounded Miller for news.
"That was completely overwhelming," she says.
Families of two dead soldiers lived near Fort Bragg, and Miller worked with other volunteers to coordinate meals, housekeeping or funerals.
"I was up until 2 a.m. every morning," she says. "After work, I would go straight to families' houses and just sit with them."
Death became so second nature that Miller's last red-line messages were delivered with no emotion at all. "I hated that," she says. "I never wanted to be calloused."
In the end, Miller says, she felt overwhelmed and somewhat resentful that the Army had taken over her life for a year.
She also learned something about herself. "I love counseling," she says. "I'm actually going back to get my master's in counseling."