A nation at war

Waiting and Worrying


In the hours after United States soldiers invaded Baghdad on April 7, Nathalie Brech was on the edge of her seat. She, who among a clutch of other military wives, had to wait to learn the fate of husband Bruce W. Brech Jr. e-mailing relatives including those back in Secaucus with possible news.

The day before the incursion, David Bloom, the reporter assigned to her husband's unit, had died of an embolism, so even that source of information no longer existed.

"We were planning to have him for dinner because he covered our guys," she said.

Early on the morning of April 7, she heard that her husband's unit had gone into Baghdad, and that two soldiers had died and others were injured when an Iraqi missile struck the tactical operations center of the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, located south of the Iraqi capital.

“It was the kind of TOC Bruce worked in,” Nathalie said during the telephone interview a few hours after the initial reports.

The three battalions from the 464 Armor Battalion, 3rd Infantry 2nd Brigade, including tanks and armored vehicles, conducted operations inside Baghdad for the three straight days. Although the attack later proved to be on another TOC, for more than a day, family members both at Fort Stewart in Georgia and Secaucus, did not know if he was alive or dead. Bruce, 26, is a former resident of Secaucus, although his grandmother and other family members still live there.

Different news stations had differing information. Some stations monitored by other family members had no details about this particular conflict at all.

For hours, Nathalie did not know if one of the wounded or killed soldiers was her husband, and feared each time the doorbell rang, thinking she might find a soldier there to tell her that her husband would not come home.

It was an aggravating wait, one that she and other family members had to endure as news organizations reported about the conflict before she and other husbands and wives of military people heard official reports about their loved one's fate.

“I called the Battalion rear detachment command and they have not information for me,” she said.  “I was told that family notification would be several hours.”

Nathalie said she kept the kids home from school when the report came in about the conflict, all of them. The four kids, Catherine, Christine, Jordan and Timothy, waited with her to learn news about Bruce.

Nathalie said she limited the amount of TV she will let the kids watch as far as the war is concerned, letting them sit with her for about a half hour a night, avoiding the graphic talk of bombing.

"I just want to know what is going on, where we are and that's it," she said. "I don't want to hear about the prisoners of war and how they are being treated. To me shock and awe are fireworks over the Empire State building, not bombs on Baghdad.” Sometimes, she would seek out additional information in the internet away from the kids.

Nathalie, the daughter of a Navy man, had been through similar situation in 1991, when her father was slated to go to the Persian Gulf during that conflict, saved at the last minute when the war ended sooner than most people expected.

But now, her father is in the Persian Gulf as well, on a base in Saudi Arabia. While the man assures her he is safe, she worries about him. He can not leave -- even if he wanted to -- because of flight restrictions.


Sept. 11 had a huge impact on Bruce


Although Nathalie, her husband and four kids live on base at Fort Stewart in Georgia now, Bruce grew up in New Jersey with several family members long-time residents of Secaucus. His grandmother, Maryanne Brech and other family members still live in Secaucus.  Bruce, a graduate of Woodridge High School, joined the Navy at 19 years old.

"He needed to be part of something, to represent the country," Nathalie said.

For five years He was assigned to the USS Constitution harbored in San Diego. Nathalie was working for the coroner’s office and they met through mutual friends, as part of group of friends. She remembered talking to him over the next few weeks on the telephone before he went back to Secaucus to stay with his grandmother.

"He was supposed to go back for two weeks," she said. "He stayed there seven days then came back. He called me from the airport to have me pick him up. He carried in his suit case and never left. I tease him all the time about his being the date that never left."

They married in 2000, and he rejoined the Navy for a brief period when their first son was born, looking to get stability. At one point during this stint, he was assigned to the Navy Annex in Washington D.C. where he frequently made trips to the Pentagon.

Upon discharge, he sought a federal government job in law enforcement or the prison system so he could complete his retirement package. Eventually, he decided to reenlist the service -- only he didn't want to go back into the Navy, so he joined the Army instead. He was eventually assigned to Kuwait -- nearly nine months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Kuwait-Iraq region has been a continued trouble spot.

Then, Sept. 11 happened. Although a huge event for people around the nation, Nathalie didn't fully understand how much more the loss of the Twin Towers affected her husband until they came back to New Jersey the November following the attack.

She remembered the Thanksgiving after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attack when she, her husband -- and their four children came back to visit her husband's grandparents in Secaucus.

"He just sat out on the deck in the back and stared at the skyline. I asked him what the matter was. He said couldn't I tell the difference? Me not being a native, I never understood much of an impact the Twin Towers had on people here and how much of a landmark it was. From grandma's kitchen, you can see the Empire State Building. But I couldn't have told you where the World Trade Center was supposed to be. Then there was complete silence, and I had to walk away and leave him to work it out."

 During the attack, family members had been stranded in Manhattan -- people Bruce could not reach for sometime. The attack on the Pentagon also hit him hard, because he knew people there.

"The man was a ball of anxiety," she said. "When it came time to go (to war), he was very hesitant about leaving his family. It was the only thing that could hold him back. He didn't want to miss out of his family for six months. He was torn between being a soldier and being a father. But in the end, duty called and I couldn't tell him not to go. `This is what I'm here for,' he told me. `I'm going to go kick some butt.' In the beginning, I told him to go, `You'll be fine,' but I know that $250,000 the government will give us if something happens won't make up for losing him."

Nathalie said he was the heroic type.

"I told him not to be hero. His mother told him the same thing. But we know if the situation happens, he'll be a hero," Nathalie said. "That's just the way he is."

Nathalie had not talked to Bruce since March 1. Communication is horrible with that part of the world. And she has not received a letter since March 18, although she writes to him twice a day everyday, and she is sure he writes back.

"It's hard to get a letter a month," she said. "But mail service isn't good out there."

Meanwhile she keeps busy with college work and taking care of her kids. She is part of a Family Readiness Group that passes information around about the soldiers. This network of soldiers' relatives gets notices of injuries or deaths right after the immediate family members are notified.  She also has friends and family monitoring all the news stations for information, which often gets aired before the military officially releases it.

"He's a great guy," she said. "I have never felt so loved. In his letters, he is worried about us, not about himself. In a letter from Kuwait he had one sentence about what was going on there, the rest was about us."



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