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Soldiers’ families also serving



Published: Wed, April 30, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

By BOB KERR

Jennie Angell got one of those calls that start out as a blessing, then turn into a nightmare.

Her son Robert called from Kirkuk, which is where he spent most of his third tour in Iraq. She asked if he was scared. He said not really. But he did say that seeing blood on the walls during a visit to an Iraqi prison had bothered him.

“Then I heard someone yell ‘mortar,’” Angell recalls. “Then Robert said ‘Mom, I gotta go.’ Then there was silence.”

Other parents have shared the experience. One minute, they’re connected with a son or daughter through the wonder of modern communication. The next, they’re left with silence and a terrible uncertainty. They have just heard the war on the phone. They don’t know if they have just heard their child being killed or wounded.

Robert Angell called back as soon as he could. He was OK. But the strain of not knowing for those few hours took a toll on his mother.

She takes out a framed picture of Robert and his sister, Carolina. He is on the left in his Air Force uniform. She is on the right in hers. She is on her second tour in Kuwait. He is back in the United States at Andrews Air Force Base.

It was Carolina who contacted me — by e-mail from Kuwait — about what happened to her mother. She calls it an injustice.

It sure seems like it.

Jennie Angell had a very tough time dealing with a son sent three times to Iraq.

“Every day, I was always on edge. I’d worry. I prayed constantly.”

During Robert’s first tour, in 2004, she watched the news. Whenever she saw something bad happen in the area that he was in, it just added to the weight. She stopped watching.

“By the third tour, my doctor put me on antidepressants,” she says. “And I had terrible eczema. I had sores everywhere. I was scratching incessantly.”

She was working as a sleep technician at South County Hospital in Wakefield, R.I.

“We monitor everything from head to toe — breathing, eye movements, snoring...”

She is also a registered EEG technician, which involves reading brainwaves. She says she is one of only three dually registered technicians in the state.

“I’ve been working in the field for 30 years,” she says. “I’m a great tech. I love the work.”

But in the spring of 2006 she had to leave that work. She had been at South County Hospital since January 2005. But the strain of Robert’s repeated deployments caught up with her.

“My doctor and my chiropractor gave me letters saying I needed to take time off because of the stress.”

Six weeks off

She says hospital officials told her that while she didn’t qualify for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, she would be allowed six weeks off.

“At the end of the six weeks, my doctor told me I was not ready to go back.”

She submitted the required paperwork for a second six-week leave.

She received a call from the hospital’s personnel office telling her she was being replaced.

She tried to get her job back. She said she’d return to work despite her doctor’s concerns. She was turned down.

“I’m very angry, very hurt,” she says. “I’m a mother of a soldier.”

And that has to count for something. It has to count for a lot, actually. We’re all in this together. When the troops serve, so do their families. There is all that support sent in so many forms to the son or daughter in a bad place. And there is all that worry and uncertainty and fear -- all the things Jennie Angell and her husband, Bob, had to deal with as they waited through those three deployments from 2004 to 2006.

So this is a lousy thing to do. There has to be some compassion on the home front, some understanding of the toll taken and the price paid when a child goes to war. Adding to the stress rather than doing everything to ease it seems a very strange and unfeeling thing for a hospital to do.

Angell, who has started nursing classes, has contacted her congressman and senators. She contacted the state Human Rights Commission, where she says her case is still pending. The burden of proof is on her, she says, to prove that she was unfairly treated.

She got to me late in the process. It was her daughter’s idea. Carolina Angell thought people should know what her mother has been through.

I asked for an explanation from the hospital. Margaret Thomas, vice president for human resources, responded by e-mail:

“All personnel records are confidential and our policy does not allow me to discuss the employment record of any current or former staff.”

Thomas said the hospital has a commitment to high staff satisfaction and retention of dedicated employees.

“Our goal is to retain our staff as this is beneficial to the organization, to our patients and to staff/colleagues throughout the organization.”

Yeah, but what about the employee whose son is sent to Iraq three times and she is literally worried sick about it? Does she get a piece of that commitment?

Or is the war as distant from South County Hospital as it is from so many other places?

Scripps Howard News Service


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