In the Spotlight

News & Features
The war reaches home
The war reaches home
DocumentRebuilding a family life
DocumentWhen women go to war
DocumentLife on the homefront
AudioLife on the homefront (story audio)
Respond to this story

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Life on the homefront
Larger view
Ruby Solheim in the cab of her military truck. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Solheim)
With U.S. troops committed in Iraq, as well as other parts of the world, including Afghanistan and Bosnia, the military has increasingly turned to it part-time soldiers to fill out its ranks. In 1991, during the first Persian Gulf war, about 25 percent of the military personnel called into active duty were from the National Guard and the Army Reserve. In the Iraq war, that number is expected to climb to 40 percent. For families of soldiers, the deployments are taking a toll. One South Dakota family's life has been turned upside down by mom's lengthy absence.

Estelline, S.D. — Ruby Solheim left Estelline, South Dakota for Iraq in February 2003. She's posted somewhere in southern Iraq. Most days she travels in a dusty military convoy across dangerous desert roads -- transporting water, fuel, gear - basically anything needed by the American troops.

Ruby's deployment has drastically changed life at her family's peaceful lakeside home in eastern South Dakota.

Her husband John had to quit his traveling sales job, so he could be around when their two elementary-age children got home from school. Markus is a third grader and Sarah is in fourth grade. John's kids never give him any trouble, but they do pepper him with difficult questions.

"Why can't mom be here for my birthday? Why isn't she going to be here for Christmas? Or why can't she be here for Thanksgiving?" John Solheim says. "When you're talking in terms of a year, year and a half, they just can't comprehend how long that is and so you get the, 'Mom isn't coming home this month either?' You know that kind of stuff."

This is not Ruby's first deployment overseas. She was sent to South America twice for four months each time. But this deployment has lasted much longer than John expected. He's not happy about it, although he does find some humor in his predicament.

I never expected that I'd bring my daughter to a war with me, but we support each other and take care of each other. When I need someone to lean on or visit with I go to her, and she does the same for me.
- Ruby Solheim

"I didn't ever have anything to do with the cooking or any of that. And now I'm doing laundry and, what do we do for supper and what we do for lunch, and all of those things that I've never had to deal with before."

And then there are some duties that are tough for a father to figure out.

"My daughter is in fourth grade. Well, we get into the development of a young girl and you know here I am -- I've never been around that before. And all of a sudden, OK, now she's starting to not be a little girl anymore. Now what do we do? You know, those kinds of things," John says. "So like I say, my life is just totally gone in circles."

Speaking from her base camp in southern Iraq, a half a world away, Ruby Solheim knows that sometimes John feels like he's in over his head.

"Oh, the girl talk. He'll get it taken care of."

If he doesn't, Ruby told John he could always call her sisters for some advice.

Ruby knows John is being a good dad. She knows the kids are doing well in school and they don't misbehave. She also knows they're eating a lot café food like chicken strips and bacon cheeseburgers. But to Ruby, that's OK, because John is a lousy cook.

"In fact, when we were first married he tried to make goulash for us. And he thought he would really be the toast of the town and put a little green pepper in there. But unfortunately, he put the whole pepper in there, including the seeds of the pepper. And our tongues were just burning off. So I said he could never cook again."

In family photographs, Ruby is a pretty, petite woman with soft curly hair and a big smile.

Larger view
Image One of Saddam's palaces

Ruby is also a straight-talking, no-nonsense, 17-year veteran of the South Dakota Army National Guard. She's worked her way up the ranks and is now a Sergeant, First Class in the 740th Transportation Unit based out of Brookings. She loves her job and she's proud to serve her country -- but she misses her family.

Ruby did come home for a week's leave just before Christmas. During a recent interview she recalled that visit, and what it was like to see her kids after 10 months.

"When I left Markus didn't have his two front teeth, and he had his front teeth now. And my daughter Sarah's hair had grown so long, and I was able to braid it. They're just so tall and so grown-up, and matured a lot."

Ruby is not totally cut off from all family. Her 19-year old daughter from her first marriage, Melody Boerger, serves in her unit. It's an unusual situation -- Ruby hasn't heard of any other mother-daughter soldier teams in Iraq. It's also comforting. "I never expected that I'd bring my daughter to a war with me. But we support each other and take care of each other. When I need someone to lean on or visit with I go to her, and she does the same for me," Ruby says.

Melody's relieved that her mom is there to show her the ropes. She admits that serving in Iraq has been hard. They've endured oppressive heat, up to 147 degrees, and blinding sandstorms, and life in a cramped, crowded tent.

It's a world away from South Dakota State University, where Melody was a freshman. She had been going to classes for about a month when she got called to active duty.

"I never thought that we would have to do this. It's been OK, but it's been different," Melody says. "The experience is the good thing though, actually saying that I'm here and I came to Iraq."

Larger view
Image Markus at play

While they talk a lot and often eat together, Melody and Ruby don't usually work together. That's been nerve-wracking for Ruby on a few occasions when she knew her daughter was out on a dangerous mission.

"She went farther north and west in Iraq at one point than I had ever gone, and I was kind of leery about that. But she got to see Saddam's palace and a whole bunch of neat stuff that I didn't get an opportunity to see. So I was kind of eeeehhhh. But she shoots better with her rifle than I do, so I never was too worried about it."

The 740th Transportation Company has had a pretty safe track record in Iraq. The unit has logged more than 1.5 million miles with only a few close calls.

The 740th is in the process of rotating troops. Ruby and Melody are tantalizingly close to the end of their tour of duty. If all goes well, both women will leave Iraq in April.

Back home in South Dakota, John Solheim stares out his dining room window at the picturesque view of the nearby lakeshore. On the table is a stack of photos his wife sent him from Iraq. He's amazed by the contrast as he flips through picture after picture of desert and destruction.

"This is down by Um Qasr. As you see everything is just -- there's no windows in anything. Every place you look, you know, there's nothing but barbed wire, and there's some of the tanks."

John plans to pamper Ruby when she returns. He's put in hundred of hours on the house. He's installed some new kitchen appliances and he recently finished off an outbuilding for their hot tub.

His days seem to fly by, and this afternoon is no exception. As John glances at the clock in his dining room, he realizes school will be out soon.

Larger view
Image Sarah in her bedroom

"We should probably go get the kids."

During the short drive to town, John talks about his old job. He would spend many hours a day in his car, travelling from home to home, selling windows and siding. He liked determining his own schedule and appointments. He knows he needs to look for a job when Ruby gets back, but he's not sure what he'll find.

"If somebody would have told me a few years ago that I'd be 51 years old and still wondering what I want to do with my life, why I'd of said, 'I guess you're probably kind of nuts.' I thought I had it all figured out and then this happened. And it kind of makes you change your plans."

Does he ever wish his wife hadn't joined the military?

"Yeah, there are days that that thought crosses my mind."

As John pulls up to Estelline Elementary School, students start trickling out of the main doors. Sarah is the first to spot her dad's car.

"Hey dad."

"Hi honey. How'd it go today?"


"What you got in your hand?"

"Oh, it's stuff for my book report."

"What's your book report on?"


"I thought you said you had to do it on Ohio."

"Ohio I mean."

Moments later, Markus appears in the swarm of school kids and joins them in the car.

Ruby's deployment and the whole experience has brought John much closer to his kids. He's a big part of their lives now, and he's proud of them for being so brave during their mother's absence.

On the ride home, Markus and Sarah offer compliments to their dad from the back seat. They especially like his hot cocoa and toast. At the mention of food though, their conversation quickly turns to their mom. Markus misses her home-cooked meals and Sarah misses her hugs. They know their mom misses those things too.

"I know one thing she won't miss," Markus says. "Sand."

"I wouldn't like to live there," Sarah says.

Back at the house, Sarah gets on the computer. She loves the almost daily e-mails her mother sends her. She loves to read the ones where Ruby writes about coming home.

"'When the grass starts to turn green and the leaves are on the trees, Mel and I should be home or on our way home. I love you both with all my heart. Love, Mom. Xs and Os,'" Sarah reads.

Even though the family will be back together soon, John can't help worrying about future missions. Both Ruby and Melody could be called back to active duty within six months to a year. They've been told they could be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan. John supports the war effort, but he doesn't want it to go on indefinitely.

"I guess when this all started to come down, why Ruby and I felt, as long as they had to go -- go and get the job done and finish the job. Do it right. So kids like Sarah and Markus don't have to 10 years from now, 15 years from now, go back there and continue on."

The Army has said it will likely station at least 100,000 troops in Iraq over the next few years. With that kind of commitment, the Solheims and families like theirs will likely be asked to make even more sacrifices than they expected.

News Headlines
Related Subjects