Editor's note: For nearly nine years, Utah servicemen and women have left their families to go to war. Most have returned. This is the first in a two-part series about what it's like to leave and to come home. Tomorrow: What it's like for one military father to be home for Father's Day
LINDON — Pfc. Lisa Bradford will stay in bed a little later than usual this morning. Slowly blinking away sleep while insulated beneath fluffy blankets, she will clutch her young sons closely so she can absorb enough extra snuggles to tide her over for an entire year.
Private Bradford will leave for Iraq before the end of the month with about 300 other citizen-soldiers from the Utah Army National Guard's 141st Military Intelligence Battalion based in Orem. The year-long deployment will more than double the Utah Guard's presence in the Middle East.
Every waking minute is a microcosmic chance for the soldiers of the 141st to shoehorn all sorts of preparation into the precious few days they have left before departure.
The home front
Private Bradford, 34, fully understood what she was getting herself into when she joined the Utah National Guard in November 2008.
"I knew there was a war going on and the possibility of me (deploying) was a pretty good chance," she said. "I knew that there was a chance that I could go, and it ended up happening."
In late 2008, Bradford already knew deployment would mean time away from her two sons, Dylan and Sean, now 5 and 2 years old, respectively. But she had long desired a military experience — she actually signed up for the Air Force at age 19 and had an entry date until her parents found out and persuaded her to withdraw — and by her early 30s the window for enlistment was quickly closing.
Ultimately, it was the support of her husband, Sgt. Jakob Bradford of the Utah National Guard 97th Troop Command, that paved the way for her enlistment.
"My husband said, 'Listen, if it's something you want to do and you feel strongly and passionately about it, you should probably do it now,'" she recalls.
Bradford personally knows the pain of being away from her children — she has two sons who live in Hawaii with her ex-husband. She may not be showing it, but you can bet your bottom dinar that Bradford will seize every remaining chance to enjoy daily life with Dylan and Sean.
"Life is normal, but I know inside and my husband knows inside (what awaits)," Private Bradford said. "Every moment we get we cherish it and we try to take it to the maximum. Any chance I get, any spare time now, I try and incorporate it with my family."
Sgt. Stephen Bryner, a civil engineer from Kaysville, has been in the Utah National Guard for almost 10 years but never deployed abroad. With the departure of the 141st to Iraq he'll bid adieu to a wife and five children, the youngest barely two weeks old.
He doesn't relish leaving his family behind — far from it — but Sergeant Bryner knows greater sacrifices will be exacted from his wife than from him.
"She is going through a lot more than I am right now, so definitely hats off to her," he said. "When I go over there I'll be taken care of, but if my vehicle's broke or something on my house needs to be fixed (back home), that's not going to happen because I'm not here to do it.
"I think there's a lot you can do to prepare your family, but ultimately they are definitely the ones that sacrifice the most."
Keeping in touch
By applying an engineer's thorough thought processes, Bryner began months ago looking for ways to fortify family relationships even from halfway around the world.
His living room is equipped so that, by utilizing video Skype technology, the children will regularly converse in real time with a life-size image of their father's face.
"I've got a big screen (television) in my house hooked to a camera and a computer, so I can be there in my living room," Sergeant Bryner said. "For my end, I settled on a small netbook computer with a video camera and a portable Verizon Skyping plan."
Even on the days he'll be missed the most, Sergeant Bryner's paternal presence will still be felt because of a secret stash of gifts and greeting cards he has compiled to satisfy a year's worth of birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.
Three brothers belonging to the 141st Military Battalion are readying for simultaneous deployment to Iraq. They share a philosophical foundation for keeping in touch from the Middle East with their spouses, but differ on a few of the logistical specifics.
Staff Sgt. Jake Brandt, Staff Sgt. Joe Brandt and Sgt. Rich Brandt agree that, once they're in Iraq, any form of communication with their wives can be beneficial in moderation but potentially detrimental if used excessively.
"Probably Skype will be a big factor," Jake said. "At the same time e-mailing, letters — it all plays on the emotion of the wives. They like all of it."
"But you try not to do it every single day," Joe clarified. "Because then you're bringing the stress of your home with you to the deployment, and those are things you've just got to trust they'll take care of."
The Brandts have different plans for how frequently they'll speak with their spouses from Iraq. Rich, the most newly wed of the trio and who will soon mark the one-year anniversary of his marriage, wants to speak via phone twice weekly with his wife. Jake plans on one video call per week with this wife. And Joe, the longest-tenured husband of the three brothers, is "just going to wing it."
Staying safe in Iraq
The three brothers Brandt were all born in Utah County but spent most of their formative years in Manti. Each joined the Utah National Guard in Manti as a 17-year-old high school senior.
Fraternal twins Jake and Joe find no small amount of pleasure in ridiculing younger brother Rich for his ill-fated attempts at growing a mustache, while Rich knows to needle his brothers about their age-related insecurities. (Jake and Joe are outwardly in denial of the fact they're about to turn 30 years old.) They frequently complete each other's sentences when participating in the same conversation.
Because they're part of a Military Intelligence unit, the brothers will be tasked out to different places. The 141st Battalion contains three companies, each responsible for collecting intelligence and providing linguistic support in a different geographical area. Joe and Rich are in the same company but they're on different teams, so there's no guarantee how often they'll see each other, much less Jake, who's in a different company altogether.
Even then, though, for Joe, Rich and Jake the peace of mind that comes from knowing they'll never be very far apart from each other in Iraq is simply priceless. While many soldiers outwardly project a steady, stoic outlook in the days and weeks before deployment, the Brandt brothers carry themselves more like a three-man comedy team than three men about to head off to war.
"I feel pretty good (about deployment), especially going with the brothers," Joe said. "It's going to be exciting. I don't know what to expect, but we'll do just fine."
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Brandts, Pfc. Bradford will deploy to Iraq without any family in tow or much military experience to lean on. Her biggest supporter, her husband, will no longer be by her side to share the insight he's accumulated during his two National Guard deployments. And yet, in her way, Private Bradford finds as much solace in her own situation as the Brandts do in theirs.
"There are several soldiers that have been there before," she said. "That's comforting, to know that we've already got people that know what to expect and that can comfort people (for whom) this is their first deployment.
"I already know who my strong support people are that I can turn to while we're out there. I think that has put me at peace of mind to go out there — that and believing in myself, that I'm going to be fine and that it's going to be all right."