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Husband, wife give views of war from home and away

New Hampshire Sunday News

December 23. 2011 10:45PM
Krista and Tom Graham, along with children, from left, Elim, Moriah, Christopher and Lydia, will enjoy a special Christmas this year. Last year the family was apart while Tom was deployed in Kuwait with the 197th Fires Brigade. Missing from the photo is son Curtis. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

Hundreds of New Hampshire families have already received the best Christmas gift of all: Their soldiers are home for the holidays.

Last Christmas, more than 700 members of the New Hampshire Army National Guard's 197th Fires Brigade were deployed in Kuwait, their mission to support the drawdown of troops in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

And one Guard family has played a unique role in documenting that mission.

Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Graham was the brigade historian, collecting details of missions in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back home with four of their five children, his wife, Krista, kept a journal documenting life on the home front. Her writings are now a self-published book, 'Deployment Diaries (One Year of Holding Down the Fort).'

Together, they have created an extraordinary record of the largest deployment of New Hampshire troops since World War II.

'For us, it was very much two separate missions, where we're both focused on fulfilling our own tasks where we are,' Krista Graham said.

When news came of the pending deployment to Kuwait, almost a year in advance of the mission's start, on Sept. 11, 2010, Tom Graham had one question for his commanding officers: 'Are you going to need a historian to capture that?'

'Meaning me, of course,' he said.

He learned he was going during a Saturday formation in January 2010 when his name was called from a list of those being deployed.

'He called me from there,' his wife of 22 years recalled. 'I wasn't surprised.'

She remembers being excited for her husband. 'I knew it was something he had always thought would be an interesting experience.'

They broke the news together to their five children: Christopher, now 20, Curtis, 18, Lydia, 15, Moriah, 13, and Elim, 10.

'I remember us putting a lot of planning into that,' Krista Graham recalled. 'Just making sure we were all home, telling them where he was going, and that it wasn't going to be combat and he was going to be safe.'

There followed myriad details to prepare for a yearlong deployment. And one of those tasks was keeping their extended family informed.

That's how the 'Deployment Diaries' began. Krista started sending out newsy emails to family members, keeping them up to date with how things were going. 'I sent them to Tom, as well. I figured it was also a good way to let him know what's going on at home.'

She tried to keep her dispatches upbeat. 'One thing I didn't want was to dump on him all the stresses of home life,' she said.

What she didn't know was that her husband had passed on some of her journal entries to Maj. Greg Heilshorn, the brigade's public affairs officer, who had created the Granite Thunder Facebook page to post brigade news.

Did Heilshorn want to post some of Krista's writings, Graham asked. 'He said, 'Oh yes,'' he recalled.

Her posts went up, and the comments from other military spouses began.

'I very quickly realized this is striking a chord,' she recalled. 'Everyone said the same thing: It makes me laugh and it makes me cry.'

So that became her mission. Krista chronicled the poignancy of Christmas and Easter without Tom, the adjusted expectations during his two-week leave at home and the drudgery of keeping up with snow shoveling and car repairs:

'Since taking over the care and feeding of our three vehicles, I have discovered that automobile maintenance is a lot like child rearing. It involves well-child checkups (for inspections and oil changes), sick-child visits (to replace burned out tail lights and brake lights) and occasional trips to the emergency room (to patch or replace punctured tires). Cars also require feeding (at the pumps) and bathing (at the car wash). All of the above are time consuming, expensive, inconvenient, and exacerbated by something that I can only attribute to bad Kar-ma.'

Over in Kuwait, Tom Graham was working on ways to get the brigade units to regularly send him what the military calls 'SIGACTs' - significant activities - and 'SITREPs' - situation reports - and compiling those into readable prose. And since there isn't a slot in a combat brigade for a historian, he had other jobs on base, as well, such as overseeing contracts and enforcing environmental safeguards on motor pools.

This is from his history of the 3-197th Field Artillery Battalion, which provided Convoy Escort Teams (CETs) for long-haul transportation battalions across Iraq:

'Missions are primarily conducted at night, and adding to that difficulty is the fact the Iraqi roads are often full of unmarked turns, exits, and are covered with potholes, not to mention the constant concern of enemy contact. Missions typically last 5-9 days with about 14 hours of driving each night ... When on the road, the CET operates as a tight knit group whose primary mission is to protect one another, and before they start the return trip, they say a quick prayer.'

Graham became the brigade historian just before the Sept. 11 attacks. His first task was to compile a record of how the National Guard responded to those attacks.

Now Graham is completing his report on the 197th Fires Brigade's historic role in helping bring the war in Iraq to an end. The raw data and classified documents will be kept at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

But his eventual report, he said, is for a civilian audience. 'We as the military are accountable to the general public,' he explained.

Just two months after Graham deployed to Kuwait, the couple's son Curtis left for basic training as a Marine at Camp Lejeune.

Last Christmas, Krista Graham said, 'It was just so quiet. Having two people missing ... when none of us had ever been apart.'

This year, the family will all be together again. 'It'll feel right,' she said. 'Complete.'

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