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Awaiting an airman's call

On Sept. 25, Tech. Sgt. Ken Butler said his goodbyes at MacDill Air Force Base. Every Saturday, his wife listens for one weekly phone call to get through.

By BABITA PERSAUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001


RIVERVIEW -- Any minute now, the phone will ring. Alejandra Butler fills a pot with water and drops in potatoes. She glances at the digital clock on the stove: 1:45. She picks up her 4-month-old baby, Zachery, from his blue blanket and pats him on the back, looks at the clock again. Any time now.

RIVERVIEW -- Any minute now, the phone will ring. Alejandra Butler fills a pot with water and drops in potatoes. She glances at the digital clock on the stove: 1:45. She picks up her 4-month-old baby, Zachery, from his blue blanket and pats him on the back, looks at the clock again. Any time now.

Every Saturday about 2 p.m., Tech. Sgt. Ken Butler is supposed to call his wife from "a classified location." And every Saturday, Alejandra waits.

On this Saturday, she hopes it won't be like a few weeks ago when the call didn't come. She telephoned a friend, worried.

"If anything had happened, you would have heard by now," said the friend, Jeanette Beltaifa. "Maybe he couldn't get through because the lines were busy."

The following day, Sunday, Alejandra Butler missed church, sat on the couch until the black phone by the refrigerator rang. Her friend was right. Ken couldn't get through.

The couple arranged the calling schedule before he left. He would try to call on time so she could plan for it.

Now, here she is at it again, waiting.

Before they married, Ken Butler sat Alejandra down. He didn't mince words. He told her he was in the military, part of the contracting support staff for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, a refueling crew at MacDill Air Force Base. A whiz at spreadsheets and computers, he helps set up camp for military personnel. At a moment's notice, he could be called to duty anywhere in the world.

"You have to learn to be independent," he told Alejandra.

"I said, "No problem.' Now, my God, it's very hard to be alone," said Alejandra, 23.

Many images have emerged from the war in Afghanistan: Gen. Tommy Franks in desert fatigues briefing reporters at the Waterside Marriott. Ground troops descending on Afghanistan's rocky hills. Then, there's a quieter image filled with its own reality of war, its own strength and sacrifice.

Alejandra sits on the black leather armchair in her Riverview home. Her brown hair is clipped with a gold barrette. The movie Chicken Run plays on the television, but she's not watching. The Christmas tree she decorated by herself before Thanksgiving twinkles with the colors of the rainbow.

The last time she saw her husband was Sept. 25. He was leaving on a military bus shuttle with three others from his squadron from offices at MacDill.

"He opened the window to say bye," recalled Alejandra. "He looked like a little boy."

Alejandra doesn't regret being a miliary wife. How can she? If it weren't for the military, she would never have met Ken.

Four years ago, he was stationed at Moron Air Base in Spain. She was on an extended stay there from her native Colombia, visiting cousins and waitressing. A tall serviceman walked into the restaurant one day.

She didn't speak a word of English. He didn't speak Spanish. During a year of dating, they communicated through hand signals and translation dictionaries.

Before they both left Spain to return to their native countries, he told her: "We will meet again in the United States."

"And he did what he promised," said Alejandra.

Visas sorted out, the two were married on Feb. 5, 1999. Their life together started in Riverview.

This is the second time in almost three years of marriage that Ken Butler has been overseas during Christmastime. In 1999, soon after they married, he was sent to Kosovo for four months. Alejandra filled her time taking English classes.

When he returned, they hugged in the doorway and didn't separate for two weeks, the vacation time returning serviceman are granted.

This time, it's different. This time, there's the baby, who was 8 weeks old when Ken left. Now 4 months old, he has discovered his feet and begun sucking on his toes and responds when she sings to him. He looks just like his father, cleft chin and all.

Whenever Ken calls now, all his questions are about the baby. Their conversations usually last 20 minutes. One Saturday, they spoke for an hour. Alejandra searched the details of her day just to keep the conversation alive.

"Okay, baby, let me think what else to tell you?" she said to her husband. "Oh, the baby started eating solids."

"Don't make him chubby," Ken said.

The week before deployment was nerve-racking. Ken would be told he would go the next day. Alejandra would go through the ritual of crying. Then, deployment would be postponed. When he received a new pair of desert fatigues, she knew it was final. He was going.

The phone call is the only means of communication the couple has. No e-mail or even videoconferencing, which is available to some wives, is feasible from where Ken Butler is. Alejandra can send packages through the base. She packed cookies and Blow Pops, his favorite, for Thanksgiving and included a two-hour videotape of the baby. Throughout much of the tape, she was saying: "Say hi to daddy. Say hi to daddy."

Alejandra strains the potatoes; 2 p.m. has come and gone. Her brow furrows.

She opens the fridge, closes it, opens it again and pulls out the mayonnaise.

Did he get busy? Is he okay? "My husband forgot about me?" she says.

The baby starts crying, "It's okay. It's okay," she says, pulling him out of the stars-and-moon carrier. Outside, rain falls. Another hour has passed.

She thinks it is probably getting dark where he is.

"He will call on Sunday," she says.

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