Monday, September 22, 2014
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Soldier mom returns home
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Sarah Griesse holds daughter Kiley in their LeMars, Iowa home. Griesse left for Iraq when Kiley was 7 months old. Griesse returned 15 months later, to a toddler. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
The year 2003 was monumental for Sarah Griesse. She had her first child and married her college sweetheart. In November, she was called to active duty by the South Dakota National Guard. A few months later she was in Iraq. Now after more than a year away, Sarah Griesse has to learn all over again how to be a wife and a mother.

LeMars, Iowa — Sarah Griesse joined the National Guard for college money, to pay for her nursing studies at South Dakota State University. For the Guard, she's a heavy wheel mechanic. In Iraq, she spent her days overhauling humvees and armored trucks.

The first five months she was in Iraq, Griesse's base camp at the Baghdad airport was shelled several times a week. Later Griesse's battalion moved, and she felt safer.

It was at night though, when she had time to think, that was the toughest. She was homesick for her 7-month-old daughter, Kiley, and her husband, Trent.

"There were nights I'd get up at midnight, or 1 or 2 in the morning and ask a girlfriend to talk, or go and call Trent," says Griesse. "I'd get to that point where I just can't do this anymore. Then I'd talk with my family, and get my whole support system backing you up and do a few extra prayers for you. Then it's like, OK, now I can get through this."

Sarah Griesse returned to her home in LeMars, Iowa, two weeks ago -- with mixed emotions. She had to say goodbye to new friends she'd lived and worked with for 15 months, but she was thrilled to be home.

She's eager though, to put her mark on the new home she and her husband bought just before she left. Paint samples are stacked on the table next to her.

Is it a game Kiley's playing, like she always did with daddy before? Or does she actually think I'm still in the computer somewhat? I don't know.
- Sarah Griesse, talking about her 2-year-old daughter

"I came in and said, 'Honey, the place looks great. But it's a bachelor pad,'" says Griesse. "(There was) nothing on the walls, and the few things he did put on the walls, it looks nice but it needs my touch. (I need to) make it my home."

Griesse is also trying to put her touch on her soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter. She's forcing Kiley to eat vegetables, and she's dressing her more like a girl.

"She's pushing her boundaries," says Griesse of Kiley. "We're trying to get her out of high chairs and into booster seats, and get her out of diapers and learn how to potty train. I left a baby I could hold and cuddle, and she's out running around doing her own thing."

Griesse did see Kiley's first milestones. She watched a videotape and talked with her family directly through a Web cam. While it wasn't the same as being there, Griesse says at least she didn't miss out completely.

Kiley didn't miss out either. Before she left, Sarah made videotapes of her reading bedtime stories. Kiley and Trent watched them over and over. The two would also talk with Sarah through audio links on the computer. Still, Sarah wonders what kind of connection Kiley really has with her.

"There's times I go down and work on the computer, and she'll see the headset. And she'll put the headset on and see the computer screen and she'll talk to me. (She'll say) 'Hi Mama,' and she'll have a whole conversation with me. She's sitting on my lap and I'm just talking to her, although she has the headphones on," says Griesse.

"Then she'll say 'bye-bye mama,' and she'll hang them up. I'll say, 'Can mama have a kiss?' and she'll turn around and kiss me," says Griesse. "So is it a game she's playing like she always did with daddy before? Or does she actually think I'm still in the computer somewhat? I don't know."

Griesse says she and her fellow soldiers were told it takes three to six months to adjust to home life and renew relationships. Griesse knows her family will need the full six months. She and her husband are learning all over how to be a couple, and more importantly how to parent together. She says it's hard work.

"You're not going to come back to a happily ever after. You'd like it to be that way. You'd like it to be simple. I think then life would be pretty boring. It's better to have your problems and your quirks. It's what makes us, us," says Griesse.

Sarah Griesse will finish her nursing degree in December. She and Trent are planning a second honeymoon in the Virgin Islands. She says next year she hopes to have another baby.

Griesse is committed to the South Dakota National Guard for another three years. There's a good chance she'll get called to active duty again.

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