'What good will it do to cry?': wives left behind by the new tour of duty

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The Independent Online

For Joanne, it is less easy to be sanguine about her husband's return to a country that remains a war zone: "I started crying," she said: "because I was imagining my husband on fire jumping out of the vehicle. If someone took Sky News off for the next six months I would be really grateful. "

Sergeant Andrew Wilkinson, 32, of the Royal Horse Artillery, is among 6,000 men of the 7th Armoured Brigade about to take over in Iraq. In 10 days' time the first of the famous Desert Rats will return to the city and surrounding area they liberated or invaded, depending on your point of view. Behind them they will leave, in the words of one officer, 3,000 mothers, not to mention other wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and families.

In the next few weeks the coaches will pull up at their base in Germany and the wives, they insist, will not cry as they watch them drive away. They will return to the privacy of their cars and sob for 10 minutes before " pulling themselves together".

Many believe the Desert Rats' turn has come around again too soon. But these women know that, when you are an army wife, the army comes first. "I don't think soldiers should be out there but they have a job to do and I support him," said one of the wives yesterday.

Aware that after weeks of intense training most of their husbands are already a world away, they opt not to air their own fears. Some have had "surreal and slightly hysterical" conversations about death; some have ignored the topic.

"What good will it do if I cry and scream and threaten. It is not going to make any difference. He still needs to go," said Claudia Percival, 38, wife of a major in the Royal Signals, and mother of Tara, aged six, and Ben, two. "Tara will say I don't want daddy to go and she will start crying. That is the most difficult thing," she explained.

Aware that many of the women can be lonely and overwhelmed by coping 24 hours a day on their own, an extensive welfare package has been put together. Under the orders of Brigadier Patrick Marriott, who learnt how tough it was for families as a young officer in charge of welfare, a 100-page Op Home Rat advice guide has been published, which they hope will be adopted across the Army.

It offers everything from grass cutting and car fixing services to advice on dealing with depression and the tense homecoming. Click on the Away Rat cartoon on their website and families can receive updates and pictures of where soldiers are living. The Home Rat image will show servicemen and women images from what the Brownies are doing to pictures of birthday parties.

An educational psychologist has put together advice on dealing with sons and daughters.

It is much needed at a time when many of the wives insist this tour scares them more than when their husbands first went to war.

"You can see both sides," said Mrs Wilkinson. "But I find public opinion frustrating when they say 'get the troops out'. We know the troops are going until April and maybe beyond."