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When work evaporates, a father goes back to basic training

LAND O'LAKES

In the fall of 2007, while the Dow was still riding high and President Bush was hailing job growth, Russ Wilson's world was in free fall.

For Russ, who drove a truck hauling drywall and concrete blocks, the housing crisis meant less construction, and fewer loads in his lease-to-own truck. But he still had to pay for the truck, and that left almost no money for bills or food.

"Christmas was horrible," said Russ. "It just got worse and worse,"

In January 2008, he and his wife Amy had no money to celebrate their daughter's birthday.

When they couldn't pay rent in February, they were given a week to move out of the home they thought they'd eventually own.

Amy and Russ and their children, 6-year-old Logan and 11-year-old Makailee, moved in with Amy's parents, who lived a mile down the road.

At the end of the month, Russ returned the truck, losing $2,000 in an escrow account.

Every day he looked for work. He did odd jobs, installing flooring and stocking part-time at Target. Even with Amy cleaning houses, a necessity that Russ hated, they couldn't get ahead.

In April, Russ walked into a mobile jobs center in Land O'Lakes.

"Are you interested in the open road?" the counselor asked.

"No, my wife would kill me," said Russ, who wanted evenings at home.

"Got any knowledge of granite or marble?"

"I know it's heavy," said Russ. "I drove a truck most of my life. I can do forklift."

Russ had a GED, but no computer skills. He had never been in trouble with the law, but being a good guy with a strong work ethic wasn't enough for most employers.

The one exception, he figured, was the Army. The way Russ saw it, the military depended on volunteers. And it was one place that wouldn't go out of business.

One day in April, Russ stopped by an Army recruitment center in Brooksville. The recruiter shot him down.

"He was like, 'You're used to sloppy joes, TV and weekends free,' " said Russ.

But Russ wouldn't give up.

A few weeks later while job hunting in Dade City, he walked into another recruitment office. This time the sergeant didn't brush him off. Russ walked out with a fistful of brochures.

• • •

Five years ago, there's a good chance neither the Army nor Russ Wilson would have wanted much to do with each other.

Russ was patriotic — both his dad and grandfather had served — but under normal circumstances a job that might require a year in a war zone was not high on his list.

The Army had preferences, too. It wanted high school or college graduates, and it wanted them young, healthy and fit, which was not a description Russ would have applied to himself.

But add two unpopular wars and a bad economy, and suddenly it was a good match.

The Army had struggled to meet increased recruiting goals — at least another 80,000 each year. To hit that number they were willing to overlook an age nearly twice the ideal recruit's and a waistline enhanced by a weakness for Big Macs.

For Russ, a guy with no credit, no home, no health insurance and no future, relaxing weekends with the family quickly became the least of his worries.

Late at night, while everyone slept, Russ and Amy could see their future laid out in the glossy pages of the brochures.

He could train as an E4 specialist and drive trucks.

They could live in a house, maybe even on a safe military base. Russ wouldn't have to worry about the children when they rode their bikes down the street.

Still, this relationship was risky. For both sides.

The Army might spend $30,000 recruiting and training a man who washed out.

The risks for Russ were slightly more complicated. If he failed, he would lose his best chance to put his family on a firm financial footing. If he succeeded, he might be sent to war.

Russ signed the papers.

• • •

He was scared to tell Amy's parents he had enlisted. Especially her mother.

"I've only seen her angry like twice in my life," said Russ. "I felt like a puppy who wanted to run away."

"I was devastated," said Darlene Neff, Amy's mom. "I think it's because I'm such a family person. It's out of the frame where I can be there and take care of him."

Russ had been like a son to Darlene for nearly half of his life.

At 17, Russ' dad kicked him out. His father's girlfriend moved in and her three children got Russ' room.

For several months Russ lived in his gray truck behind the ABC Pizza where he worked.

He was already convinced that Amy Neff, the girl he'd asked out in tardy hall, would be his future wife, and he opted to stay in Land O'Lakes to be near her.

The Neffs thought highly of the young man who made their daughter smile every time she spoke of him. When they heard he was sleeping in his truck, they set up a room in their home for him.

Amy's extended family was very close, with several aunts and uncles all living along Brewer Road.

The family shaped Russ in many ways.

"The first time I heard 'I love you' was with this family," said Russ. "It felt good inside. They taught me how to do it, I guess."

Amy's dad taught Russ how to hunt and showed him how to fix things. He taught him how to be a responsible parent. He helped him get his first real, grownup job.

"He pretty much made me a man," said Russ. "He's always done whatever he had to do to take care of his family."

Now Russ faced the same challenge. But doing it meant separating the family that had once rescued him.

The family's deepest fear was that Russ would be sent to war and not return, something he downplayed.

"I can get killed out here on Dale Mabry," said Russ. "When it's your time to go, it doesn't matter where you are.

"If I broke my arm, I'd still have a job and free medical to pay for it. I've found what's best for (Amy and the children). No matter what. Even if I get shipped over there, the family is going to be taken care of."

What really worried him was the effect on the family.

"I love my family tremendously. We are very close," said Russ. "That's what made this decision the hardest decision of my life. It's not going to war, it's knowing what I'm doing to Mom."

• • •

As they counted the days until basic training, Russ and Amy organized their meager finances. They opened a new military bank account and labored through a stack of paperwork. Russ took care of small details like waxing the family car. He practiced running, which he loathed, and tried to eat healthily, which he disliked almost as much as running. He hugged his kids a lot.

When he arrived at Fort Knox in June, he discovered to his chagrin that his official nine weeks of basic training could not begin until he was able to meet the physical fitness requirements.

He was overweight and had high cholesterol. He had to run a mile in under ten minutes. He couldn't.

Amy and Russ had never spent more than a week apart. In letters home, all his anxieties came out — his fear of failure, his isolation.

"My Dearest Amy,

I just got off the phone with you. Sorry for crying. I'll tell you about the good dream I had last night. I dreamed that I was next to you in bed and you just looked over at me and smiled. Then I woke up and realized it was just a dream."

He fretted about having enough money for laundry service. He tried to avoid getting targeted by the sergeants, who called him "Old Man" and told him he might not survive.

"You got to treat the drill sergeants like alligators. You don't want to get too close. You never know when they're going to eat you alive."

But he passed. After nearly three weeks in limbo, Russ began basic training.

"I finally ran the complete mile without walking once, ran the whole four laps. I was so proud of myself . . ."

The separation was still hard.

Amy worried he would change on the inside. Russ worried that she wouldn't need him anymore. He hoped Amy would still find him attractive without facial hair.

But there was no doubt — Russ had changed. And changed for the better.

"I'm not a mean fighting machine who wants to kill everybody," he told her on the phone. "I'm a thinner man who values his family more."

His drill sergeant was praising him now, saying the "Old Man" didn't have to do guard duty anymore.

"Nothing can stop me now baby. I did it!!! I finally feel like the first time in my life that everything is going to be allright. Not worrying about the future and heading down the right path . . . Almost feels like we're grown up and actually adults."

• • •

In October, Amy's parents held a party to welcome Russ home from basic training. American flags decorated the porch. Toby Keith blared from the small stereo.

Sixty pounds lighter, wearing his fatigues and beret, Russ looked very different.

"He got kicked out of his home; I was worried about him," said his best friend, Chris Douglas, nicknamed Bama. "Now he's standing so tall. He's so proud now."

Guests helped themselves to macaroni and cheese and deviled eggs. Alvin Neff worked the grill. A man of few words, on this night he smiled at everyone as he served hot dogs and hamburgers. Darlene, who had been angry for weeks after Russ' enlistment, roamed the party, encouraging guests to have seconds and fussing proudly over Russ' transformation.

Adults talked of the economy, which in the six months since Russ had enlisted had gotten considerably worse. President Bush had just signed a $700-billion bailout of the financial system and the Dow was about to suffer its worst week ever, losing a fifth of its value. Bama's house was in foreclosure, along with more than 1,000 others in Pasco County.

On the face of it, Russ and Amy's gamble was paying off. He had a paycheck, health insurance, everything but the house with the picket fence.

Janet Jacobsen, Amy's aunt, said she wasn't sure about their decision at first.

"He didn't know what he was going to do," she said. "And now, you can tell in his face. He's like, 'I've got it now' and he feels great. They're going to make a good life."

• • •

Part of that life was a month away in Texas, where Russ and his family had been posted to Fort Hood in Killeen.

A few days after his party, he and Amy talked about what lay ahead.

"I'm 32," said Russ. "I still feel like a kid that don't know what's going on. I wish I could call up Mom and say, 'Hey, Mom, what should I do?' Every day you go through life and make decisions and you don't know what to do.

"Every time we tried to make a good decision, it turned bad," said Russ. "Average people just can't survive right now. But we'll be okay. I'm a simple man. I just want to work and pay the bills. That's what I've always wanted."

But for all his misgivings about previous choices, he and Amy couldn't shake their optimism that this time would be different.

They were hopeful that the Army's programs would help them beyond the basics. She could open a child care center in her home or go to nail school. They could set up college accounts for their children and begin to plan for retirement.

"Makailee wants to be a chef," said Amy. "She wants to go to culinary arts school. We don't want her to struggle. We want her to have more than we did."

"We'd like to build our own little log cabin house," she said. "That's our goal while he's in the Army. Buy a piece of land and each year add something."

"My dream is that they'll be close so that I can watch them," Darlene said. "My whole life has been that way. I've always had them."

Russ laughed and pretended to stomp around the kitchen in his uniform.

"But I'm 32 years old, Mom," he said.

"She knows that when I get my cabin, she'll be right next to me in another cabin," he said. "We'll have solar panels, we won't have to pay electricity. We'll have a big garden."

• • •

In November, Amy and Russ and their children moved to Texas. For Amy it was the first time she had ever lived more than 5 miles from where she grew up.

Russ is now Spc. Wilson. He's a member of 2nd Battalion 227, 1st Cavalry.

He can see Logan's school from his porch. Their home has three bedrooms and a bonus room, plus two little trees out front.

They are making ends meet for the first time in a year. Amy is planning a big celebration for Makailee's 12th birthday.

In March, Russ' brigade will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Shary Lyssy Marshall lives and writes in the Tampa Bay area.

When work evaporates, a father goes back to basic training 01/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 4:42pm]

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