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CHESTERTON – Mrs. Jessica Gray, 23, has much in common with the wives of other soldiers in the Indiana National Guard 113th Engineer Battalion.

Her nights can be long and very empty. Sometimes she gets lonely, tired and emotional.

Especially tired: She delivered a baby in February, two months or so after the 113th landed in Mosul, Iraq; she has an exacting job at a local title agency; she is taking college classes in nursing; she rides herd on a vibrant 4-year-old son named Dylan and an endearingly floppy 9-and-a-half-month-old son named Brayden, born while his dad was in Iraq.

“Nights are hard,” Mrs. Gray said. “I go a couple of weeks and I’ll be cruising along and doing great – going to work and coming home with the boys and fixing dinner and putting them to bed and going to sleep and then all of the sudden I’ll just lose it. Typically it’s at night, once the kids are in bed and you’re alone.”

Her husband, 1st Lt. Elijah Gray, 29, has had some tough times after sundown too. While embedded with the 113th in Mosul this summer, I marveled at his poise when gunfire and bombs tore the night sky. He was fresh out of officer’s school then, a very green second lieutenant, but to my untrained eye he might have been protecting bomb disposal experts in a hotbed of insurgent terror all his life.

Once, while heading back to Forward Operating Base Marez after a bomb-retrieval mission, I asked him how she was doing. “She’s real strong, real strong,” he said.

It doesn’t take a visitor long to realize the recently-promoted lieutenant knows exactly what he’s talking about. Jessica Gray could be the soldier’s dream wife. She is petite, attractive, focused, robust, entirely devoted to her husband – and just about as lonely as she can be. Between his officer’s candidate school and duty in Iraq, the Grays have been together six of the last 24 months.

“He is an extraordinary person,” she said of her husband, who is thinking about becoming a cop – and resuming church attendance – when he returns. “He is so smart and good-hearted and he would

do anything for anybody. I think he gets that from his mother. She is a wonderful woman. She helps us out a lot. She is here all the time helping me with the boys.”

Brayden’s arrival caught them a little by surprise.

She had an ultrasound about a month before the lad’s due date. “They said he is probably about a good nine pounds about now,” Mrs. Gray recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do nine pounds ... I’m not a very big person (a petite 5’2”).” The doctor told her she would probably have to have a Caesarean delivery.

She didn’t like the idea. A few phone conversations with her husband helped convince her everything would be fine.

“Then, my doctor was supposed to be out of town for two weeks and here I am, as big as a house and almost due, so he said, ‘You’re going to need the Caesarean either way. We can either do it now and you can go home and do your laundry and come to the hospital in the morning, or you can take the chance of going into labor when I’m gone and then having another doctor.’ We decided to go ahead and do it, and he came on the (Feb.) 12th.”

She rolled into the delivery room before it was possible to get word to her husband. Mrs. Gray’s mother was in the delivery room, her mother-in-law in the waiting room, her husband was half a world away, most emphatically in harm’s way.

“I was a little upset that he

didn’t know, but we went through the Red Cross and all that jazz. Everything went fine. It was a very smooth delivery. He came out 9 pounds 7 ounces. He was the biggest, fattest baby in the nursery.”

When Eli Gray did get a chance to call the hospital, it was way past bedtime in maternity ward. “And the nurses were not going to take his phone call, because it was 11 or 12 at night. (They said) ‘She’s sleeping, it’s past phone call hours.’ He must have given them a piece of his mind because he got to talk to me.”

She wonders if her husband will be the same when he gets back from a year in Mosul, Iraq.

“I worry about it, and I don’t say a whole lot to him.” she said. “Number one, I don’t want to alarm him. I’ll mention something like ‘How are you feeling about coming home?’ (He says) ‘Oh, fine, I am ready to be home.’

“But you know, you hear stories about the guys who come home and they can’t adjust or they realize they don’t want the family life or whatever. So, yeah, it’s always there in your mind.”

She almost glows when she recalls when father met son. In April, when 1st Lt. Gray came home on leave, Brayden “knew who he was.” The little nipper nestled right in there and promptly fell asleep in his father’s arms.

Unexpected knocks at the door can hit her like thunder. Will it be an officer with bad news about her husband?

“If I’m not expecting somebody and the door (bell) rings, your heart just jumps into your throat, because you never know. You never know. That has only happened a couple of times, really.”

She would appreciate it if visitors would call first.

Strangers have told her how much they appreciate what her family is going through. Once, while shopping, she struck up a conversation with a woman and let it be known that her husband is serving in Iraq.

“She said ‘I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what he’s doing,’ and it made me cry – like it’s making me cry now.”

Her husband doesn’t tell her much about the danger he faces, and she doesn’t ask.

She has been thinking about that lately, and what he’ll want to eat when he returns. “To be honest, I am not a good cook at all, and he’ll tell you that,” she says. She expects they’ll visit the Hacienda in Michigan City. He is especially fond of the jalapeno poppers there. It is the first place they went on a date.

Has the separation made their marriage stronger?

“I think so. I do. I really do,” she said. “You know, we just got married last September, so once he comes home, he’ll have been gone 18 of the last 24 months. In December it will be three years that we have been together ... it is going to be great to have him home, but I think it has made us a lot stronger. We’ve had to work through so many things that other people never have to encounter.”

Published Dec. 5, 2005