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Military families making plans before deployment

FORT HOOD, Texas—Still in fatigues and boots, the helicopter pilot assembled a heavy winter soup with ground meat, pasta and chilies as his bulging household buzzed around him—a sort of new millennium "Brady Bunch," Army style.

A teenage daughter carried some laundry, a 10-year-old bagged garbage, a 6-year-old finished homework, and the eldest, a high school senior, pleaded—unsuccessfully—for permission to watch a wet T-shirt contest at a local bar.

Meanwhile, the wife of Chief Warrant Officer Robert C. Thomas, 31, nursed their infant son.

The Thomas household operates like a well-oiled and—by necessity—highly flexible machine. The couple each brought two children from previous marriages then had a fifth baby after marrying last year.

Now Thomas is leaving for the Middle East, which will make the military family one of many with a lone parent at home.

Thomas' unit, a battalion of the 227th Aviation Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, has been ordered abroad along with 12,000 other troops from Fort Hood.

"It was a numbing feeling," Tracy Thomas, 36, said of her reaction to her husband's deployment orders.

"You know that's what they do for a living, but you hope you go 20 years without that experience.

"Mentally, I'm prepared for a year. It's easier to prepare for the long term than to have your hopes up they'll return early and, in six months, they don't."

While her husband is away, Tracy Thomas loses not only companionship but also his help running the household.

Many other service families near Fort Hood, the nation's largest military base, are facing similar challenges.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Upton, 45, a single parent, had made arrangements with his sister near his hometown of Chicago to take his three children, ages 9, 10 and 11.

When his unit, the 68th Chemical Company of the 1st Cavalry, received its orders, enrollment was arranged at an Illinois school, and Upton's sister Dee flew down to accompany the children on the flight north.

A colleague, Pfc. Sheena Harris, 19, of Savannah, Ga., had just returned from maternity leave when her deployment orders came. Unlike Upton, she had no backup plan. A cousin agreed to care for her baby.

All units have family support groups that provide advice on dealing with a myriad of problems, and now there are e-mail and videoconferencing with periodic, 15-minute conversations.

In the Thomas household, Tracy's day starts at 5:30 a.m. Between doing household chores, dropping off children at school, shopping and working at her full-time civilian job on the base, the Louisiana native's only down time is the 30-minute stretches she takes to feed the baby. Robert Thomas does all the weekday cooking and shares infant-care responsibilities and some of the driving.

His contribution won't be easily replaced, but his extra pay for serving overseas during a conflict has been earmarked for housekeeping help.

On a recent night, the beef soup was ladled into bowls and downed in various areas of the family and dining rooms. After everyone else had eaten, Robert Thomas settled into a living room easy chair with his own bowl.

The Apache attack helicopter pilot said of his wife: "She's tough. When we heard I was going, she said something like, `Gosh darn.'

"My first thought was that my baby may not know me when I come back, and I won't be here to see him start to crawl or walk."

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(Barry Shlachter reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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