September 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Fort Carson, Colo., 6:25 a.m.: Inside a condominium on this dusty Army base, Sue Bearer savors her last few moments of peace, sipping coffee and taking a drag from her cigarette.

6:35 a.m.: All hell breaks loose.

It starts benignly enough, as 9-year-old Dustin trots downstairs and with a “Hi, Grandma!” plants a kiss on Bearer’s cheek. Then the ceiling rumbles as if a Riverdance road company were rehearsing upstairs, and five other children tumble down to the kitchen. The boys—Tristin, 6, Skylor, 7, Forest, 11, and 12-year-old Jon—chatter and tease as they fix cereal and make bologna sandwiches for school; Taylor, 7, the only girl, plops down for Bearer to brush her strawberry-blonde hair. Meanwhile her borther—amped up over the new Freddy vs. Jason flick—taunt their sister for her loyalty to Barney. “Leave Taylor alone!” orders Bearer, 59. At 7:25 the backpacked brood moves out for school, and Bearer calls, “Hey, kisses!”

Then, silence.

This is the unseen Iraqi war, the quiet, unheralded heroism of the home front. For seven months now, since early February, Sue Bearer has been mother and father to her six grandkids because both their parents are on active duty in Iraq. For many the war may have entered its final stage on April 9, when U.S. Marines helped topple Saddam Hussein’s statue in central Baghdad. But the coda has been long and brutal—for the 140,000 U.S. troops still deployed in sweltering temperatures (up to 120°F in some places) and under constant threat and for their families back home, for whom it won’t end until they meet safely again.

Bearer’s son Vaughn Holcomb, 40, and his wife, Simone, 30, don’t know when they will be home; perhaps next spring. Vaughn, who left in March, is an Army sergeant in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in charge of a tank platoon located outside the northern town of Al Quaim. Simone, a nursing student in civilian life, left home in January to serve as a National Guard medic stationed in Baghdad. Though husband and wife talk to each other by phone once a week, calls home are much rarer, and the uncertainty is beginning to take a toll. “It’s hard. I miss my children,” Vaughn told PEOPLE via e-mail from Iraq. “Oh, and it’s hot, sandy—and did I say it’s hot?” Adds Simone, over a scratchy phone line: “It’s beyond frustrating. At least if we had a [homecoming] date to look forward to, it would be much easier.”

Bearer had been preparing since last fall to assume legal guardianship of the children (two are Vaughn’s and four are Simone’s, all from previous unions) just in case. “I volunteered,” she says, “but I never thought it would happen. My whole life has been put on hold.” A successful real estate agent, she had been living comfortably in Akron with her husband, Joe, 76, a retired postal worker, eating out for breakfast and dinner every day and enjoying her rose garden. Now she has quit her job, cooks for seven every night and endures a wrenching separation: Joe is staying in Akron to mind the couple’s two rental properties. “Joe and I went everywhere together,” she says, tearing up. Back home in Akron, her husband’s feelings run just as deep. “In the evening is when it hits you,” he says. “Man, oh man, is it lonely.”

Most of Bearer’s time, however, is spent dealing with a greater separation: two parents and. six young children, 7,000 miles apart, living under the ever present specter of tragedy—brought home when one of Jon’s classmates lost a parent in the conflict. The stress weighs heavily on the kids, manifested in occasional bed-wetting, mood swings and sleepless nights. “I’ve just had nightmares all the time, that my mom blew up; it’s horrible,” says Forest softly. “It stinks,” adds Jon, looking at the floor. “I don’t think it’s fair that they left us.”

The wait only became more excruciating after the fall of Baghdad, which the family watched together on TV. “They were so happy,” says Bearer, who has since placed a moratorium on TV news. “They thought Mom and Dad would be coming home right away.” If only. “Life in Iraq is pretty primitive and hostile,” says Vaughn, whose division has lost 15 men. “The drawback is knowing what he is going through,” Simone says, “knowing every day that when he gets up he’s getting shot at.”

Back home there are plenty of distractions. When the children get in from school, they have a snack and do their homework and chores before heading outside to play. Two bulletin boards in the pantry provide guidance. One lists each child’s domestic duties, along with the weekly allowance for completing the tasks ($3.50 to $5). Another shows rules and consequences (the sentence for lying is swishing a dab of hot wasabi around your mouth) established by the family long before Bearer arrived—but which she rarely has to enforce.

Despite having raised two children of her own, Bearer says she was entirely unprepared to deal with six and has lost 38 lbs. in the process. She breakfasts on coffee, cigarettes and V-8 juice, usually skips lunch and prepares a large family dinner—tuna noodle casserole, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs are among the house specialties. “I haven’t cooked in years,” she says. “That was a big adjustment.” For financial support, she draws on Vaughn’s $3,400 monthly direct deposit checks (she can’t access Simone’s). Money is tight, however; Sue shops at thrift stores, and all six children have had to quit karate classes. Letter writing—the kids also have sent handmade cards and beaded jewelry—has filled the void.

“It breaks my heart when I get their letters,” says Simone. “Skylor tells me, ‘Mom, please don’t die.’ My oldest, Jon, said, ‘Mom, I’m getting bad grades in school, and it’s really your fault because you’re not here to push me.’ But I can’t cry. I have to control my emotions. I have to survive and get home to them.” For the family that day can’t come soon enough. Eleven-year-old Forest, for one, isn’t asking for much—just a return to the simple pleasures. “I’m thinking we could go out to eat, watch TV and just play together,” he says. “Maybe we could stay up all night and just hang out and miss school the next day.” He stares off, then nods. “I think they should come home now.”

Richard Jerome

Jason Bane in Fort Carson, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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