A week ago Sunday night, after American forces killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani but before Iran retaliated by firing missiles at Iraqi bases housing American soldiers, 5-year-old Alex Haynes was playing with his toy helicopter and screwdriver that Santa had recently delivered.
In the bedroom Alex shares with his sister Jalei in Eagan, he was pretending to work on a helicopter just like his dad — a Minnesota National Guard Black Hawk helicopter crew chief who deployed to the Middle East just weeks before — when, suddenly, he burst into tears.
“Who’s crying?” his mother, Ja’Mira Haynes, shouted amid the chaos of a home filled with five kids ages 2 to 13.
“I think Dad’s dead!” Alex sobbed.
It had been 81 days since Sgt. Deonte Haynes headed to Texas to train with his 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Hood for their yearlong deployment. Ja’Mira, a type-A yin to her husband’s cucumber-cool yang, started the deployment with confidence: Just one year. I got this. Then came December’s helicopter crash in St. Cloud that killed three of her husband’s fellow National Guardsmen. That’s when her anxiety kicked in. This month’s tension between the United States and Iran has only made it worse.
Alex knows his father is an “Army man.” He sees him in uniform. And he’s picked up on his mom’s swirling emotions. Since arriving in the Middle East, Dad usually called every morning and night, but after a few days of missed FaceTime connections, Alex’s 5-year-old brain assumed the worst.
Ja’Mira lifted him to her lap, and Alex put his head on her shoulder.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because Dad died.”
“Why you think Dad died?”
“I want him.”
“I want him, too!” Ja’Mira said, her voice confident, her face strong. “Dad is not dead.” She reminded him that they had just seen Dad on the phone. “It’s just nighttime over there where Dad is, so they have to go to bed. He’s not dead. He just works far away. You don’t have to cry, because he is not dead. He’s very alive.”
The wailing calmed to sniffles. Ja’Mira told her son to get his drawings and put them in a USPS package — the “distraction box” — to mail to Dad. She bathed the kids and put them to bed.
When she was sure they were asleep and could not hear, she flopped down on her own bed, heaved a sigh and bawled her eyes out.
When Deonte Haynes and roughly 700 Minnesota soldiers left for Fort Hood, Texas, in October, their deployment seemed relatively low risk — even though they were headed toward one of the most volatile parts of the world.
Over the past decade, America’s military presence in Iraq has greatly diminished. At its peak, more than 150,000 U.S. troops were deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By the time Haynes’ St. Paul-based brigade started hitting the ground in the Middle East this past month or so, roughly 5,000 U.S. troops were stationed there.
When President George W. Bush increased the American military presence in Iraq in the troop surge in 2007, the country seemed a killing ground for Americans and Iraqis alike. More than 900 American soldiers died there in 2007, the deadliest year in a war that so far has claimed the lives of 4,575 American soldiers, according to icasualties.org, and exponentially more Iraqi deaths. In the years since, casualties have dropped — fewer than 700 American soldiers have died in Iraq since 2007 and only 12 were killed there in 2019.
Since 9/11, the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, the burden of war has been felt most by citizen soldiers like Deonte Haynes. The number of active-duty American military personnel had stayed relatively steady throughout the Cold War — 3.5 million during Vietnam, and more than 2 million until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City a decade later, active-duty personnel had stabilized around 1.4 million.
But then the U.S. entered two wars, and the National Guard’s role shifted. Instead of just helping in domestic emergencies and “break glass in case of war,” as the old joke went, National Guard soldiers could be fairly certain of an overseas deployment every five years or so.
“The National Guard has felt these conflicts acutely,” said Frank Sobchak, a retired colonel who co-authored the Army study of the Iraq war.
Nearly half of the American forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 have come from National Guard and reserve units, and those units have accounted for about 20% of the casualties. This is of particular interest in Minnesota, a National Guard state and one of eight states without an active-duty military base.
The current deployment — the state’s largest single deployment since the 2007 surge — was no surprise. Most soldiers have known for more than a year they were headed to the Middle East. Instead of supporting a large number of ground forces, the brigade’s role is to be more flexible and dispersed, with soldiers stationed across the region. (The Minnesota National Guard has requested that information about specific bases be withheld for security purposes.)
Col. Gregory Fix, the brigade commander, spent months formulating a training plan before the deployment. Soldiers flew training missions in Texas and Oklahoma, practicing everything from refueling and maintenance missions to simulating the recovery of troops from a downed aircraft.
Last month’s helicopter crash in St. Cloud hit the troops at Fort Hood hard. The three soldiers who died were friends and colleagues doing something these soldiers do at work every day. It also underscored what Fix had been telling his soldiers: Nothing is routine.
“The worst thing anybody can do is accept something as routine — that’s where danger lies,” Fix said. “Most of the problems we had or mistakes we made came from someone who didn’t check something: ‘Oh, shoot, we forgot this part to that antenna.’ Those little things just turn into big stuff.”
Deonte Haynes pulled a pint-size stuffed animal from the pocket of his camouflage fatigues. He positioned it on a picnic table in North Fort Hood, his unit’s mobilizing base, on a Sunday evening in mid-December.
When the family dropped Deonte off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after he returned for Thanksgiving, Jalei, his 5-year-old daughter, gave him the red fox, named Squirpy, in the midst of a tearful goodbye. Squirpy would travel the world, too, and Deonte would send home pictures.
The sun was setting as Deonte grabbed his cellphone and snapped a photo.
Some of the 1,300 soldiers in his battalion — men and women from around the country, including the Montana National Guard, joined the Minnesotans at Fort Hood — had already left for the Middle East. Deonte would head there any day now.
For most of the past two months, he’d been pulling 12-hour shifts. He maintained his Black Hawk, flew maintenance missions and performed a weekslong air assault training mission that mimicked an anticipated situation in the Middle East. Now it was hurry up and wait: Go to the gym. FaceTime family. Watch Netflix and Disney+ — he was in the middle of watching the 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in order of the narrative chronology, starting with “Captain America: The First Avenger.” That’s Alex’s favorite superhero.
“The idle time is getting to us,” he said, a chill descending with the night air. “None of us are doing anything but sitting around. Which is weird, because since we’ve been here, it’s been: ‘Everybody go to the flight line!’ But now, we’re just twiddling our thumbs. Let’s just hurry up and cross the pond.”
He was itching for his first deployment since joining the National Guard in 2014. He wasn’t afraid. He just worried that his 2-year-old son, Deonte Jr., would forget him — “I’m worried I’ll come back and it’s, ‘Hi, my name is Dad” — or that it would cross his kids’ minds that he didn’t love them since he would be gone for so long.
Deonte and Ja’Mira each became single parents at 17. They met in church, and their oldest daughters, Jordynn and Seniyah, grew up together. Deonte and Ja’Mira became best friends. They started feeling sparks weeks before he left for basic training in 2013. Around the time Deonte was due back from basic training, Ja’Mira went to the Cheesecake Factory in Edina for a birthday party. The restaurant fell quiet when a man in uniform walked in and got down on one knee.
“I don’t want to be friends no more,” Deonte told her. “Will you marry me?”
They’re proud that their marriage bucks stereotypes. They were teenage parents who went on to successful careers, Deonte as a helicopter mechanic at the St. Paul Downtown Airport, Ja’Mira in the risk management department at UnitedHealthcare. They’re an African-American family who adopted a boy of white and Native American heritage who had bounced from one foster home to another. They started marriage therapy a year ago, knowing this deployment would add stress to their lives.
“I like being the anomaly,” Ja’Mira said.
Their love is infectious. She posts Facebook photographs of him in full combat gear: “Mine,” she writes, with heart emojis. When she recently struggled with her emotions over his deployment, he sent her a bouquet of purple and white lilies.
Now, as Deonte sat at the picnic table at the Army base in Texas, he talked about the dangers of war. A memorial service for the three National Guardsmen killed in the helicopter crash back home had been held hours before. The crash shook him up, Deonte admitted, but it also underscored the importance of taking every routine task seriously. Sure, he and his crew could be flying over a town in the Middle East, and someone could decide to open fire on them. But that scenario felt highly unlikely. Six years in the military gave him confidence they’d be OK.
Nineteen days later, just after Christmas and around the time Deonte landed in the Middle East, an American military contractor on an Iraqi military base was killed in a rocket attack.
And everything changed.
“How the hell will I do this for another 10 months?” Ja’Mira Haynes asked herself as she lay on her bed last Sunday night.
She had calmed Alex and put him to bed and then sent Deonte a video of Alex talking about his fear that his father was dead. By the time Alex woke the next morning, Deonte had sent back his own video. He was standing next to his helicopter in the desert, proof that, yes, Dad was alive, and Dad was just fine.
Alex moved on from those emotions, as kids do. Ja’Mira did not.
When Ja’Mira was younger, she battled anxiety. Through therapy and faith, she learned to control her thoughts, rather than fall victim to them. But the December helicopter crash in St. Cloud — a maintenance flight, the same thing her husband does every day — sent her back to square one.
The anxiety became a tangible presence, a demon on her shoulder who prophesied bad things. Maybe her 13-year-old daughter would be kidnapped while walking the dog. Maybe her husband’s helicopter would fall out of the sky. Maybe a freak fuel accident would maim him. Her emotions felt like gray static on an old TV — nothing specific, just a mixed-up jumble of bad. It was the same feeling she had after suffering a miscarriage years ago.
After sending Deonte a message on WhatsApp, Ja’Mira stared at her phone. One gray check means the message has been sent; two gray checks mean his phone has received it.
“If I can at least get two gray checks, I know his phone hasn’t been blown to smithereens,” she said. “At this point, I’m just trying to get two gray checks.”
If a clock icon tells her the message hasn’t been received, her heart starts beating faster.
As Ja’Mira drove down the highway one recent afternoon to pick up her kids, her anxiety laid out her nightmare in detail. She sees her husband coming home in a box. He is wearing his uniform. She must make him look good for his funeral. He is sporting his new mustache — the “deployment ’stache,” which Ja’Mira and the kids hate. But Ja’Mira decides he can keep it.
Those thoughts are dark, she knows, somewhere past the point of being fully rational. But these days, the line between what’s rational and what’s not feels blurrier than ever. She knows she’s not the only one to worry. She’s seen the increased anxiety in a Facebook group for spouses of deployed soldiers.
Her faith tells her she can speak things into existence, so she does: “My husband is OK; he’ll be back.” She repeats it over and over.
“That’s all I think about, all I say,” she said.
The other day, she was talking to Deonte. Plenty more takes up mind space in daily life: The SUV’s engine light came on, Ja’Mira just put in an offer on their first house, the dog chewed an eyeball off one of Jalei’s favorite stuffed animals, Ja’Mira still has to work her full-time job.
She has stopped watching the news. Social media may be next to go. Yoga helps. So does box wine. She’s just trying to hold things together until her husband returns.
“If I’m being honest,” she told Deonte, “I’m working really hard on being OK. If I can just get to OK.”