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9/11: 10 YEARS ON

A casualty only a family can feel: The way it was

Like many soldiers, when Jerry Saslav returned from war, he found love and joy and subtle shifts he hadn’t foreseen

After three years at war, Jerry Saslav returned to his wife, Lori, and their daughter, Erin, in Framingham. After three years at war, Jerry Saslav returned to his wife, Lori, and their daughter, Erin, in Framingham. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / September 10, 2011

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When Sergeant Jerry Saslav came marching home to Framingham, after three years at war, he arrived to an empty house.

His wife, Lori, and daughter, Erin, uncertain of his exact arrival, were visiting relatives in California. He wouldn’t see them until he picked them up at Logan Airport the following day.

It wasn’t the homecoming any of them had envisioned.

He got cheated, Lori concedes.

It was a harmless miscue but also a fitting first day of a transition for all three that would be, in some ways, as challenging as deployment. It is a plain hard fact of service life that when soldiers go to war, their proud families, in effect, go with them, forced into wrenching changes, new burdens, dislocation, and loss. Harder to see are the subtler shifts in the way many families work once they reunite - patterns and expectations altered, gaps in relationships that can be hard to mend.

Life as they knew it, another casualty of war.

Sept. 11, 2001, was Jerry Saslav’s 35th birthday. Before heading to work, he dropped his mother off at Logan for a flight to Florida. He was looking forward to dinner with his wife and daughter at Bugaboo Creek Steak House in Framingham.

But when he arrived at the TV station where he worked as a cameraman, he heard about the terrorist attacks and was immediately sent back to Logan to cover a press conference.

Ahead of him lay another year of ordinary home life and work. But inside he was mobilizing. He first needed to get back in shape, and would drop more than a hundred pounds before he joined the Massachusetts National Guard in September 2002.

“I felt I had to do something,’’ he says on a recent evening, relaxing on the front porch of his home.

Saslav was assigned to the 65th Public Affairs Operation Center in West Newton, where he spent one weekend a month and two weeks each summer training. It was a branch of the service that could take advantage of his background in media - a profession abruptly lost to him a few years into his Guard tenure. In 2006, after a co-worker inquired about his possible deployment, management at his TV station fired him, telling him that they were going “in a different direction.’’ He’d been there for 15 years.

On June 7, 2007, he was sent to Fort Dix, N.J., for predeployment training. That August, he landed in Iraq. Except for brief visits, he wouldn’t be home again for three years.

Saslav didn’t have to be gone that long. He chose to. When his unit went home, he stayed in the war theater. Having no stateside job to return to, and with the US economy in recession, he felt he didn’t have much choice. “There were no jobs out there for photo freelancers,’’ he says. “I had a wife, daughter, and mortgage.’’

He wasn’t the kind of combat-hardened serviceman commonly cast in movies, but he played an important role. As the public affairs officer for the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division’s Third Brigade Combat Team, Saslav’s job in Iraq was twofold: to shoot photos and video of his unit, and, when necessary, to shoot his weapon. His images and words were disseminated in local newspapers, and on blogs and websites, vivid and stark reminders of what the troops faced daily. Shelled-out streets. A rocket exploding in the distance. A Black Hawk flying low against a sunset. And there were the more mundane awards ceremonies and cake-cuttings.

Saslav’s e-mail signature includes this quote from World War II combat photographer Joseph Longo: “The brave ones shot bullets, the crazy ones were shooting film.’’ But Saslav loved the job and says he got e-mail from grateful people who were comforted by the images and stories.

Meanwhile, Lori and Erin were sending him letters and e-mail. His wife says she understands why he redeployed voluntarily. “It would be bleak for him to come back here without work,’’ she says. “And he was in his element there, my soldier boy doing his thing. It wasn’t that he enjoyed it, but he found it rewarding.’’

While Lori felt it was her job to support him from afar, Jerry felt it was his job to protect her from knowing too much about war. When they spoke, it was more about home than Iraq.

While on foot patrol, Sergeant Saslav carried a load: Kevlar helmet, body armor, 330 rounds of ammunition, a rifle, pistol, first aid kit, various tools, a camelback-style water carrier. Then there was civilian equipment: two Nikons with long lenses, flashes, batteries, an audio recorder, notebook, and snacks. Total: more than 50 pounds.

During his second deployment, his unit was in Sadr City climbing a wet, concrete bridge embankment when he slipped and landed on his back. Two months later, he was in a tanker when an improvised explosive device detonated nearby. Saslav, in the loading position, wasn’t strapped in and got banged up.

This time, the injuries caught up with him. “I woke up screaming, in the fetal position,’’ he says. It turned out he had several herniated discs and a pinched nerve in his back. Because he hadn’t been shot, he wasn’t sent home on medical leave. He stayed with his unit for a few more months and finally was shipped home.

“Home’’ meant treatment, first at Fort Dix, then a year at the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Meade, Md., where soldiers “recover, rehabilitate, and reintegrate’’ back into military or civilian life. Then, finally, on June 23, 2010, it meant family and Framingham.

Saslav was both elated and anxious. Would his wife and daughter be the same Lori and Erin? Would he be able to pay the bills and find work for the long term? How much work would the house need, inside and out?

And how much work would Jerry Saslav need - especially inside?

“Over three years ago, I locked a guy named Jerry, who was a husband and father and photographer, in a closet and a sergeant stepped out,’’ he remembers remarking to a colleague. “Now it’s time to put the sergeant back in the closet and let the husband and father and photographer step out.’’

It wasn’t, as the family would learn, nearly as simple.

“My daughter was 7 when I left, and I came home the day before she turned 11,’’ says Saslav, 44. “When I left her, she was still into Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and I came back to the Jonas Brothers.’’

He grins while Erin, who recently turned 12, rolls her eyes. But he sobers when asked about his greatest regret of being away. “I missed seeing my little girl grow up.’’

There’s an easygoing banter between dad and his newly minted tween. When she first appeared in a bikini this summer, Saslav took one look and barked, “Burqa!’’ Erin, who has seen his photos of Iraqi women in their long, black robes, replied: “Dad, that is not going to happen!’’

Jerry Saslav is a big, voluble guy who holds strong views, in contrast to his wife, a petite, reserved woman who likes her privacy. Both agree the homecoming was not exactly easy, that there were edges amid the excitement.

Lori and Erin had gotten used to their routines without Jerry. “I knew working him back in might not go so smoothly,’’ says Lori, 47, who speaks frankly in her quiet manner.

For Erin, it was readjusting to her dad’s parenting style, which is stricter than her mom’s.

Lori knows her own resourcefulness stood her in good stead, but she says a support system was critical: her family, employer, friends and neighbors, and services available through the National Guard.

Then there’s just plain luck. During record rainfall, she feared the basement would flood. She prayed her car wouldn’t break down and leave her stranded. Neither happened.

As for Jerry, he couldn’t help missing his brothers in the fraternity of war. “The hard part of it is you form a strong bond with your unit,’’ says Saslav. “When you’re hurt, the medical unit takes care of you. You’re a bachelor. Then to come home . . .’’

He pauses.

“The good news,’’ he continues, “is that I married an independent woman. The bad news is that I married an independent woman.’’

There have been times, especially when he first came home, that the house - and their daughter - seemed more hers than theirs.

Saslav, who now works as a public affairs specialist with the 65th unit in Milford, says he sometimes still feels out of the loop. While he was gone, the family of three had, in some respects, become a family of two.

“You have to remember that your wife has been in charge. She’s pretty much handled it all.’’ In his pride over her competence - “Lori does not rattle,’’ he says firmly - there’s also a twinge of loss.

Lori, who works in the alumni and development office at Wheelock College, acknowledges that the transition hasn’t been perfect. “Erin and I just got used to making our own plans,’’ she says. “He was out of the picture and we could do what we wanted.’’

She doesn’t mean it to sound cold. She loves her husband and is happy to have him home, of course, but there’s a new normal now.

Mostly, it’s the little things. “I need to keep all my annoying soaps out of the shower and let him park in the driveway,’’ she says. She now also consults with him before making plans or spending money on “an extra for Erin.’’

Erin, who picked up more household chores while her dad was gone, says none of her friends had a parent in the military. “It was hard, I’d really miss my dad,’’ she says. “But after the years, I got used to it.’’

It’s apparent that mother and daughter grew even closer during deployment; in an interview, Erin grabs her mother’s hand as Lori haltingly describes her feelings.

“I’m not a worrier,’’ Lori repeats. “I’m a person of faith, and I was hopeful he’d come home in one piece.’’

He did come home, but had a good buddy killed in action. Saslav wears a metal bracelet that says “Major Stuart Adam Wolfer,’’ a fellow soldier from Idaho killed in a rocket attack.

Jerry is the worrier in the family. He worries about making a living and supporting his family. He misses his old work friends. “They’ve moved on in their lives and I’m sort of back where I was three or four years ago.’’ He worries about picking up the pieces of his old life.

He also feels a little humbled by all the thank you’s his uniform and service evoke stateside, and recalls just one irksome encounter.

That was in the Atlanta airport, when he was still in mid-deployment, coming home on a two-week leave. He’d managed to snag an earlier flight to Boston, had checked his bags and was in the security line, wearing his combat uniform and carrying his ticket and military orders.

Fearing he would miss his flight, he asked if he had to remove his combat boots. A security agent whose back was turned to Saslav said, “Look, buddy. Take off your boots. We’re trying to protect the country here.’’

That rankled. “You want to protect your country?’’ Saslav asked, unlacing his boots. “I’ll be back here in two weeks and you can go with me to Iraq.’’ The agent turned around, surprised.

Saslav knows that war has changed him, in ways that surprise those close to him. Intense by nature, he says friends comment on how relaxed he seems. He sums it up this way: “Nobody’s trying to kill me today.’’ His unit, he says, got shelled “every time the sky was not blue.’’ He narrowly missed being shot by a sniper.

But he wants no sympathy. “There’s a lot more people who experienced a lot worse than I did.’’

This is how Lori puts it: “He’s not sweating the small stuff, having seen the big stuff.’’

They both know he may see the big stuff again. He intends to reenlist when his contract is up in 2014. He knows it will likely be Afghanistan.

Lori won’t try to talk him out of it. “I like to see him being fulfilled in his work,’’ she says. “He likes his Milford job, but he has this soldier thing in him, too.’’

It is, she believes, a “noble’’ commitment.

Meanwhile Jerry is settling in, his most fearsome enemy a familiar one - the plumbing upstairs.

It’s nothing he and Lori can’t handle, together.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeEnglish.