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The empty spaces back home

The KINGS

A sleepless night is followed by a day of watching the news and listening for the phone.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Glass on a photo of Lt. Christopher King reflects his wife, Jacqueline, holding their son, Christopher.
SPRING HILL -- Jackie King paced her small Spring Hill home, flying her 5-month-old son over her head and then holding him close. Though she was tired and he was cranky, she rarely put him down on Thursday, the day after the war started.

The drooling, jiggly baby shares the name and same bright blue eyes of his father, Christopher, an army lieutenant, whom Jackie King fell in love with when they were 16.

Jackie always supported her husband's military career, but since he spent much of it in the National Guard and the reserves, she rarely worried about losing him to an actual combat zone.

But last month Christopher was called to active duty, and Jackie began living for the daily, few-minute phone calls from Fort Stewart, Ga., where he is stationed with the Ocala-based 351st military police combat support unit. Christopher has told her to expect that the unit would be shipping out for war, and now she fears the next call.

"I've got such mixed emotions about all this," Jackie King said on Thursday, after a sleepless night and day watching CNN and Fox news. "The sooner the war happens, the sooner the soldiers come home. But you know there's going to be casualties."

When the phone rang Thursday afternoon about 2:30, Jackie scooped the baby to her hip and sprinted for the phone in one synchronized movement.

She spoke softly to her husband of 15 years in their first conversation since the bombing started. She didn't cry. But her mother-in-law, Mary Luma, did.

"When you're an Army family, that's just the way it is," said Jackie, 34. "You've just got to be really glad when you do get a call; you can't be expecting one. It's not like he's away at a resort sipping margaritas or something."

Jackie King understands the military, because it has shadowed most of her adult life. She was barely 19 and her mouth glittered with braces when she became a military wife, marrying Christopher on June 4, 1988.

Christopher had enlisted during his senior year of F. W. Springstead High School. The two met at 16 and started dating their junior year.

"We were really blessed to find each other so young," said Jackie, who moved to Spring Hill with her family from Lewiston, N.Y., when she was 15. Her husband moved to Spring Hill with his family from Long Island when he was 12.

The last time the two had spent more than a few weeks apart was during the first three years of their marriage when Christopher was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany.

"That was pretty challenging," she said. They only saw each other three times.

In 1990, Christopher was discharged to the Florida Army National Guard and returned home. In 1993, he went to Officer Candidate School in Starke and earned his commission.

He left the guard in 1994 to work with his wife in the insurance industry, which gave them opportunities to travel together on business. He might have continued with it, had it not been for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Enraged and compelled by patriotic duty, Christopher re-enlisted in the Army reserves the following day.

"It was difficult, but I knew how important it was to him," said Jackie, who is president of the Family Support Group for the 351st military police combat support unit, which had its first meeting in Ocala on Saturday. The group discusses government benefits, financial arrangements and also any emotional problems families may be having.

About 180 soldiers of the military police unit were called to active duty around Feb. 7, and they shipped off from Ocala to Fort Stewart, Ga., on Feb. 17, a day Jackie has dubbed the worst of her life. Four other families in Spring Hill and Hudson also have soldiers in that unit stationed in Georgia.

Having quit work right before the birth of her son, Jackie now spends most hours within the confines of a home filled with her husband's artistry. He designed and built the outside patios and walkways and much of the house's furniture. He also did most of the paintings adorning the walls, as well as a rendering of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Nights on a louvered utility closet door.

Jackie distracts herself from worrying about her husband by obsessing about the baby, in what she calls "the best job I've ever had." On Thursday, she carefully applied ice for 20 minutes each hour to tiny Chris' swollen red leg, because he had a reaction to a Wednesday vaccination.

To remind the baby of his absent father, Jackie laminated pictures of the tall, handsome Christopher King, usually dressed in military garb, because the little boy tends to shove them in his mouth.

"He'll be walking by the time Chris gets home," she said with a sad sigh, then added in a cheerful baby-talk voice, "Won't you, Chris-TO-pher?"

On Thursday, she and her mother-in-law sat on the couch, not saying much, engrossed in the television, while the baby rocked in a swing. She had videotaped most of the Wednesday night and Thursday morning speeches, to rewatch another day when she could concentrate.

She softly repeated some headlines that swam across the bottom of the screen.

"No casualties," she whispered to the television. "No casualties."

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