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Get pregnant, or get sent to Iraq

Cristie Oliver sat down heavily at the kitchen table as she read the Western Union mailgram.

"Oh, no," she said, the color draining from her face.

Her mother, Cheryl Sendio, figured Cristie must have just opened a whopper of a bill.

"They're going to make me leave my baby," Cristie whimpered.

The mailgram was from the Army; Cristie was being called back to active duty. The Army wanted as many as 545 days, starting Sept. 5.

It had been more than two years since Cristie had put on a military uniform at Fort Riley, Kan. It was not a place where she had fit in. Twice she had had to repeat basic training, and she had left early after giving birth to her daughter, Asia.

That night, their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Angel R. Toro, sat next to a despondent Cristie on the couch in her mother's living room. He told her he would start the church prayer line, a group of 15 people who would pray for her each night.

"Sometimes," the reverend said, "God has a way of surprising us."

+ + +

The next day, members of the Chapel on the Hill United Church of Christ of Seminole gathered outside a courtroom to support two of their own, a pair of gay dads trying to adopt foster children. Among the group were Cristie and her mother.

Toro silenced the group, announced that Cristie had been called to Iraq and asked the members to pray for her. They held hands and bowed their heads. They converged on Cristie, hugging and kissing her. One woman told Cristie that she had a son in the Navy, and she offered advice:

"You should get pregnant."

+ + +

On July 6, the Army began sending out 5,674 Western Union mailgrams to former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve. These are inactive reservists who completed their active duty time but are available to fill vacancies in emergencies. Some people call this the back-door draft.

Rarely are these soldiers called back; most assume that when they're done with active duty, they're done. That's why the mailgram that arrived July 15 threw Cristie for such a loop.

She had enlisted during her senior year at Pinellas Park High School. A recruiter approached her several times. She didn't really want to go, but she didn't know what else to do.

Her mother thought it was a good idea. Cristie was shy and quiet, with an innocence that Sendio thought needed to be tempered with confidence. A dose of the Army might do her good.

Cristie smoked and didn't exercise much before she reported for boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Push-ups, sit-ups, running _ she always lagged behind.

"I'm a really sensitive person, and they're all yelling at me, and I'd just go back and cry," she remembered. "I was trying to fail so they'd send me home."

That didn't happen. She completed boot camp and trained to be a chemical operations specialist.

Michael Oliver, who also was in chemical operations, remembers the day he and his buddies were replacing the wheel on a small tank. Cristie and three other fresh-faced female recruits walked up.

Michael took one look at Cristie and called dibs on her _ something about her model-like walk. She gave up her boyfriend back in St. Petersburg. Michael sent her a different-colored rose 12 days in a row, and he sent love notes:

Lifetime is all I have for you

Oliver, that's my last name

LOL.

Vase that sits on a table that have priceless memories

Everyday that I see those pretty brown dreamin eyes

Cristie got pregnant in September 2001, and they married a few months later. She and a half-dozen other pregnant recruits were assigned administrative tasks at post headquarters.

She wanted to name the baby Africa. Michael didn't. They compromised on Asia.

Cristie left the Army the day after Asia was born, a few months shy of her two-year obligation. Michael got out a month later. They did not look back.

+ + +

After leaving the Army, they struggled financially.

In the past year, they finally found good jobs. Cristie, 22 now, does office work at the attorney general's office in St. Petersburg, and on weekends she works at a movie theater. Michael works in customer service at PODS, the portable on demand storage company in Clearwater.

Their 1995 Ford Contour broke down and needed $800 in repairs. Michael took the bus to work; Cristie's mom drove her. Cristie's stepfather picked up Asia from day care.

They talked about having another child, but Cristie wanted their finances in order first. Michael kept pressing, and she finally relented. But they were always so tired at night. Sex came last.

Then the mailgram came and everything changed: Get pregnant, get out of going to Iraq.

A friend of the family gave her an ovulation cycle wheel. She put in the date of her last period and saw a tiny window of time the last week of July.

She and Michael would have just one shot.

+ + +

Cristie awoke at 3 a.m. Michael lay asleep beside her, the TV still on.

She padded into the bathroom, opened her home pregnancy test, urinated on the strip. And waited.

Minutes ticked by. She thought about Asia without her. And Iraq. And the beheadings on TV. What if she went there and never came back? What would become of Asia? Cristie was just so scared.

The little line signifying that she was pregnant did not appear on the strip. She sat on the toilet and cried.

+ + +

A week later, Cristie felt cramping in her stomach.

Her report date was three weeks away, and she and Michael had made no preparations. She hadn't even looked at her military gear, stowed in a box in the back of her closet.

Cristie decided she would try another pregnancy test, after Michael got home.

That night, 2-year-old Asia lined up birthday candles on the coffee table. "Dats bootiful," she said.

Cristie ran around the kitchen barefoot, in a long, blue, flowery dress like something out of a painting by Monet. She fixed Asia a waffle. Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella played on TV.

The doorbell rang. In came Cristie's neighbor, 21-year-old Shanetra Wells, holding her 3-year-old's hand and heaving a car seat with her 2-month-old in it. Shanetra's 15-year-old brother, Norman "Trey" Wells III, strolled in behind, chewing on a Coke-can-sized pork rind.

"Did they tell you about my orders to go back in the military?" Cristie asked.

"You going back?" Shanetra said.

"I don't know yet."

Wells picked up her baby and handed him to Cristie, who gently smoothed his soft, curly hair.

"I like this," Cristie said.

"If you have to go back to the Army, it's the wrong time to go," Shanetra said.

"Five hundred forty-five days. It's almost two years."

"Oooooh, you're their property now."

"Would you like to stick around and see if I'm pregnant?"

"Sure, why not?"

+ + +

Cristie emerged from the bathroom with a white stick in hand. She left it on the kitchen counter and paced back and forth, hands flat on her face.

"I'm not looking at it," she said, back to the counter. "I'm afraid."

She looked. If pregnant, the stick shows two lines. Only one showed.

Cristie drummed fingers on the counter, walked away, shook her hands, her amber eyes wide, panicked. And back again.

"There's a second line. It's really faint," she said. "I can see it, but it's not all the way there. I don't know. Look at it. I can see it, but it's not coming.

"Michael, come here. Do you see the second line?"

Michael studied the stick. There was a dark maroon line and sort of a shadow next to it.

"A little bit," he said. "Last time we saw no color."

"I think I'm excited now," Cristie said.

Again Cristie picked up the stick. The second line was a shade darker, but nowhere near as dark as the first.

"Oooh, it's darker. I'm pregnant. I'm pregnant."

Michael dialed his mother in Arkansas. "She's got to be the first one," he said.

"How you doing, Mom? You're going to be a grandma again."

Cristie called her mother.

Said Sendio: "I'll be convinced I'm a grandmother (again) when you go see a doctor."

+ + +

On Cristie's lunch break the next day, she sat in an empty waiting room at Planned Parenthood under a sign that read: Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.

She hoped they wouldn't charge her for the visit; she had no money in her wallet. She wore boots, jeans with diagonal strips of brown corduroy, a tan halter top and a beige sweater. She had told co-workers that she was pregnant.

"Some people think it's a good idea. Some people think it's a horrible idea, that it's for not the right reasons."

She talked about recent news reports that the United States was bringing home tens of thousands of soldiers from Europe and Asia.

"What about the people in Iraq? What about the people dying over there? It doesn't make any sense to me."

She pulled her sweater tighter. "I hate waiting," she said, and frowned.

+ + +

The clinic assistant tested her urine three times, with three brands of pregnancy tests. All were inconclusive. She told Cristie she would have to test her blood and left the room.

Cristie looked worried and confused.

The assistant came back. "I checked the test again," she said, her face dissolving into a smile, "and you're pregnant. Congratulations."

"I knew it, I knew it. That's awesome."

"Congratulations," the assistant said. "It looks like you're not going to Iraq."

Cristie called the Army the next day to report her news. They sent her a delay and exemption packet that she returned with proof she was pregnant.

She and Michael are relieved beyond words _ for now. Cristie learned her pregnancy only delays her entry into the military until four months after the baby is born.

After that, she could be called up again.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter can be reached at lapetersptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

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