The first time Maj. Robert Hooko got called up, he wasn’t expecting it.
In 2005, Hooko, now of Virgil, was living in Baldwinsville and working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. But in his other life, he was a captain in the Army Reserve, a member of the 865th Combat Support Hospital based in Utica.
Now that other life, which had previously taken up one weekend a month and two weeks a year, was about to ask him for a lot more than that.
Deployment to active duty is always trying for servicemembers and their families, but for reservists and National Guardsmen, repeated deployment at irregular intervals introduces another set of challenges.
Active-duty deployment for reservists and guardsmen used to be the exception rather than the rule. But that changed with the War on Terror. Following the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq in 2003, it became increasingly common for reservists and guardsmen to be called to active duty — and even called up more than once.
For Hooko, the order deploy came out of nowhere. What particularly caught him by surprise was that his unit wasn’t being called up, just him.
This can happen in the Reserve, he said, but these types of deployments — in which a soldier with a certain specialty is individually called up and placed in a completely new unit — tends to be more surprising and disorienting. Normally, when an entire unit is activated, there is more warning and more time to prepare. This time, not so much.
“At the time, I was single and living alone,” he said.
This made the transition more, not less, of a challenge, he said, because he had to pack up all his belongings and put everything in storage.
But he also had family members who helped him out, especially his mother.
“Luckily, I had a supportive family,” he said.
His employer and landlord were also supportive. The hospital held his job for him, and the landlord didn’t take action against him for breaking his lease.
“Most people when you show them your orders don’t really give you a hard time,” he said. The Army sent him to Wisconsin for four months of training. While there, the Army helped him write a will and give his mother power of attorney.
“Basically, I was sent to Wisconsin where they do all this stuff for you,” Hooko said.
The hardest part, he said, was leaving his kids, who were 10 and 12 at the time and living with Hooko’s former wife.
“It was harder on my kids,” he said. “They didn’t really understand what was going on.
They thought they’d never see me again. I remember getting on the plane, and my daughter just breaking down and bawling and saying, I’m never going to see you again.’”
His destination was Iraq — the base at Abu Graib.
Hooko continued working as an anesthetist, but in the base’s combat support hospital.
He spent most of his time inside the compound, but that didn’t mean he was safe; there were regular mortar attacks, for instance. At first, he and other newcomers hid under their desks, but he quickly got used to them.
“We got mortared often,” he said.
Danger was one element of his experience. Boredom was another.
“You really didn’t know what day it was. Weekdays and weekends didn’t matter,” he said. “I still say that was the longest year of my life. It just never ended. It was just boring. Every day for a year everything was pretty much the same.”
His off days were also pretty boring: “You just worked out a lot and read a lot and watched a lot of DVDs,” he said. Down time was so boring that he’d often go to work because “there was nothing else to do.”
Half-way through his deployment, he came home for two weeks, but other than another few days of leave in Qatar, he spent almost all of his time inside the base.
He kept in touch with his kids by email and by mailing letters and DVDs he made with a camcorder.
Meanwhile, life went on back home. He might have caught a break with his employer and his former landlord, but he didn’t get a break with child support payments. While he was gone, there was a problem with his military pay schedule not matching up with his child support payment schedule.
“That got kind of messed up,” he said.
But he also wasn’t around to clear up the mess, and he wasn’t able to fully sort it out until he returned home.
The second deployment he saw coming. Hooko knew there was a shortage of deployed anesthetists, and he figured it was only a matter of time before he was called up. He got the order in 2010. They sent him to Landstuhl, Germany for four months.
In Landstuhl, he worked at a hospital that treated patients coming from Afghanistan and Iraq. His unit’s job was to give life-sustaining care and preparing the patients for being transported home.
“We would stabilize the patients and do surgery if necessary,” he said.
The deployment was more like working a civilian job, and he dressed like a civilian too.
“I wore my uniform going there, and I put it on when I left,” Hooko said.
It was also much safer than Iraq — no mortar attacks.
But it was harder on him personally. The first deployment, he was a bachelor. This time, he was married with a pregnant wife, a 2-year-old, a house and a lot of bills.
He also took a five-month pay cut, a big one.
“I had a huge drop off in pay,” he said. “The difference in income was enormous…So it was a huge struggle to pay for things.” The disparity was more than $100,000 per year, he said.
“Mortgages don’t go away. Car payments don’t go away. Bills don’t go away,” he said.
Coming home the first time was hectic, he said. He had to get all his stuff out of storage, then he had to put his life back together. Financial and legal matters had to be sorted out. He had to put things back in his name, and he had to clear up the problems with child support payments.
“There’s just a lot of do,” he said. “It felt like you had to rush to just get your life going again.”
He had started seeing someone just before he left, and now that he was back, he tried to pick up where they left off. “It was like starting over with a stranger,” Hooko said.
That stranger, Crystal Cowart, is now is wife. They were married in 2009.
Yet things could have been much worse, he said. He didn’t have PTSD, for example, and he hadn’t been injured or killed.
Coming back home the second time, however, was easier. His deployment was much shorter, and he had more to come back to.
“It was a nice to be back with my family,” he said.
The biggest issue he had were little things he noticed around the house that bothered him, such as light bulbs that hadn’t been changed.
“Small things got overlooked,” he said.
“He’s lying,” said his wife, Crystal, who had been listening.
“Everything was in order,” she said, laughing. “I think one light bulb was out. It probably went out the day I went to the airport.”
But, more seriously, Crystal, who was pregnant at the time, said his deployment to Germanywas hard on her and their 2-year old, as well as her teenage daughter from a previous marriage.
“It was hard, and it was harder on the girls,” she said. Their 2-year-old didn’t understand why he was gone for so long.
“She kept asking, ‘When’s daddy coming home?’” she said. “It just broke your heart.”
Despite the distance, the couple still found ways to get on each other’s nerves. Both are big Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans (they have season tickets), so naturally Hooko wanted to watch games while he was in Germany. Except he watched them via Skype. She would aim the laptop camera at the TV so he could watch, and then he would complain about the laptop placement.
“This is where he became a pain in the butt,” she said. “He found ways to annoy me even though he was overseas.”
When he did come home, she said they found it hard to get back into their old pattern of sharing household responsibilities, such as paying the bills. When he was gone, she did it her way, but when he came back, he wanted to do them his way.
But the hardest thing about the experience, she said, was being pregnant “in a big house alone without my husband.”
“It was just at the worst possible time for us,” she said. “It was just very tough on us because he wasn’t there.”
Two tours in Afghanistan
For Sgt. 1st Class Carl Bush, the National Guard is a way of life. While he started out as a part-time guardsman, he’s been working full time since 2007, and is now a recruiter.
Bush was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. He was gone for about a year. About nine months of that time he spent in Afghanistan; the other three months were taken up with training beforehand and demobilization after returning, which is a standard division of time for a National Guard deployment, he said.
Bush was a section leader responsible for a half-dozen soldiers in an infantry unit. He deployed with about 80 soldiers from Delta Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 108th Infantry based in Ithaca.
He spent most of that year running convoy security, but he also did patrols around Kabul and surrounding villages and worked at observation posts looking for rockets and mortars.
But most of the time his job was keeping convoys safe. This can be dangerous work, but he said his unit was fortunate to come home with no casualties.
In 2012, he was sent back. This time he served on training missions with the Afghan National Army.
“We were mentors to them,” Bush said. “We would train to let them take the lead in a mission.”
This involved running training exercises and checking on outposts where the Afghan soldiers were stationed. In actual firefights, the American soldiers would fight alongside the Afghan soldiers, he said, but the purpose was to prepare the Afghans to handle their duties without help.
He wasn’t there for a full nine months. His unit was recalled earlier than expected, as part of a general force reduction; they spent about six months in-country, and 10 months total.
Dealing with separation
Coming home after both deployments was relatively simple for him, mainly because he was a full-time guardsman, he said.
“For me reintegrating was easy, because everything was already here,” he said. “Our jobs are waiting for us.”
Also, National Guard deployments tend to have more advance notice than the Reserves, he said.
“We typically know well in advance,” Bush said. “It’s definitely not a shock to any of us.”
He was married to the same woman, Trisha, through both deployments. Their two children are now 12 and 16. When he first deployed, his youngest was 6 months old.
Separation from his family was one of the hardest things he and they had to endure, he said.
He and his wife devised a strategy for making that separation less painful. They decided that, even if he had the opportunity, he wouldn’t come home on leave, and he also wouldn’t call at regular times.
This may sound unusual, but Bush said he’s not the only one who chose to do this, since it can minimize a few potential problems.
First, it eliminated the pain of saying goodbye more than once. “It’s hard to say goodbye,” he said.
On calling home, he looked at it like this: If he was expected to call at regular times, his wife and kids were likely to assume the worst if he happened to miss a call.
“We made it irregular on purpose,” he said.
It’s not a solution for everyone, he said, but it worked for them.
“Everybody handles it their own way,” he said.