Connie Santucci is counting the full moons until her son, Nick Markovsky, an Army infantryman, comes home from Afghanistan.
Mother and son agreed that counting once-a-month full moons seems easier to deal with than day-by-day.
“I take a picture of each full moon and send it to him along with the date and time of the next one,” said Santucci, of Niles.
If all goes well, she may be able to greet him in person during the next full moon.
In the meantime, she prays, she worries, she sends care packages, she commiserates with others in the same situation, and she cries — a lot.
Santucci’s cellphone has become like an extension of her body. She is never without it since she missed a call from “my soldier,” throwing her into the depths of depression.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Santucci represents the other casualties of war: those who in previous wars kept the home fires burning — the home front — sitting and wondering what is happening to their loved one.
Contact with soldiers in combat zones is sporadic, even in the age of cellphones and the Internet and Skype.
Santucci’s son, Army Pfc. Nicholas “Nick” Markovsky, 20, is a squad automatic weapon gunner and Stryker light-armored vehicle driver with C “Chaos” Co., 1-38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
The 2011 graduate of Niles McKinley High School enlisted in January 2012 for three years of active duty and was deployed to Afghanistan in November 2012.
He is the son of Paul M. Markovsky of Austintown and stepson of Chelsey C. Santucci of Niles. His grandfathers are Paul J. Markovsky of Austintown, who fought in the Korean War, Dominic Carano of Hubbard and Nick Santucci of Warren. His grandmothers, Marcia Carano, Rose Santucci and Dee Markovsky, are deceased.
His mother, 51, who grew up in the Brownlee Woods area of Youngstown, graduated in 1979 from Hubbard High School and retired as director of nursing of the Clare Bridge assisted-living facility in Austintown, she said, to become a full-time Army mom.
Markovsky’s unit is stationed at a combat outpost in the dangerous southern region of Afghanistan where a number of American military and civilian contract personnel have been killed this year.
The Internet connection is very weak and fades in and out, Santucci said.
“I’ve been lucky enough to hear his voice three or four times since he left in November. The conversations are very short, just long enough to say how proud of him I am and how very much he is loved and missed by everyone,” she said.
“We don’t talk about what he is doing. He wants to hear about home and everyday general stuff and talks about what he wants me to cook for him when he gets back, such as homemade gnocchi with Chelsey’s sauce, fried chicken and vegetable pizza,” Santucci said.
Mother and son use a code word when they talk.
“I ask him if he is ‘straight.’ If he answers yes, I know he is doing OK. If things are bad, he says ‘not so much,’” she said.
“Then I have to be his rock ... build him up and encourage him and keep him focused and remind him to trust his training. But when I hang up, I’m a quivering mess,” Santucci admitted.
Even Skype — communicating in real time by voice using a microphone and by video using a webcam via the Internet — doesn’t always work well.
In one instance, Santucci said her son had tried unsuccessfully many times in the same sitting to connect with her, but by the time the connection finally got through, he was asleep.
“I sat there and watched him for 20 minutes before I ended the call. Listening to him breathe gave me comfort you wouldn’t believe,” she said.
The worst times, she said, are when she learns that soldiers are killed but no specific information is available.
An excerpt from the diary she has kept since her son was deployed in November 2012 describes what she, and likely most other mothers, wives, girlfriends and families, endure as they wait to learn whose loved one is wounded or dead.
Another mother of a soldier in Afghanistan called Santucci to let her know that five soldiers had been killed early in May when their Stryker hit an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan, and to ask Santucci if she had heard who had died.
“My heart sank and I was weak in the knees. I instantly got online and saw that there had been no activity on Nick’s Facebook account for 20 hours.
“My heart was beating faster. I went to the Department of Defense website ... nothing was listed. My breathing became short and shallow.
“I launched into ‘super mommy’ mode and contacted other mothers and wives ... hoping to hear something, anything to help ease the pain I was feeling in my heart. I flipped on the news, and yes, indeed the news was true.
“I then had a complete meltdown. I began sobbing uncontrollably. My body was trembling. I was hyperventilating. I began screaming. Please God, please dear God, don’t let it be my son.”
Finally, a husband of one of the wives who is with her son’s unit emailed her telling her that “they are all okay.”
Then, Santucci said she was hit by a new range of emotions.
“Relief washed over me that our soldiers were OK, and then guilt ... knowing that five mothers somewhere in this great country were about to have their hearts ripped to shreds.
“I had begged God for it not to be my son ... but my heart ached for the mothers I have never met, and the families that now would never, ever be the same,” she said.
To help herself and others with loved ones in the war zone communicate, Santucci started a Facebook page, “Army Moms and Girlfriends, etc.,” which now has nearly 1,300 members.
When asked what she wants people to know about her son, she said he has always worked since he was 12. When he was 16, he used his college money to buy two duplexes. He’s a saver. At 18, he opened a Roth IRA, said Santucci.
“But, I think what I am most proud of is his integrity. If he says he is going to do something, like serve his country, you can count on it,” she said.
Markovsky’s father said with a son over there he has gained a lot more respect for Memorial Day and veterans and military families.
“Until you’re in that position you just don’t understand. When he was home last summer, we went out and bought a new flagpole and American flag and Army flag. I fly it religiously,” the elder Markovsky said.
“I’m proud of my son and I pray for him every day. I can’t wait until he gets home and we can just sit around and talk,” he said.