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thedrifter
01-21-08, 10:22 AM
News from brothers in arms
Granite Bay family both loves and loathes instant calls, e-mails from Iraq
By Cynthia Hubert - chubert@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PST Monday, January 21, 2008

Joshua and Benjamin Soto work in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Sometimes, when the brothers call from Iraq, their parents in Granite Bay are rattled by the sounds of bombs and gunshots. Sometimes, Mark and Teresa Soto hear terrifying stories of death and injuries and near-misses.

Satellite phones, cell phones, computers and the Internet have made communication between the home front and the war zone easier than ever. That is mostly a blessing but also a curse, especially for a family that recently sent two sons into battle.

"It's very different from World War II or Vietnam, when people would go months without hearing anything," said Teresa Soto. "I am so grateful we can talk to them. But it's true that at times you can get too much information. You hear things, and you feel their anxiety, and it makes you worry even more."

A 2004 survey by a United States Military Academy researcher found that about 25 percent of troops in Iraq called family or friends back home at least twice a week, and 10 percent phoned daily. Those numbers, the most recent available, probably have increased significantly in recent years because more troops now carry cell phones and prepaid phone cards, according to the military.

The relative ease of communications between troops and loved ones today "can both be helpful and anxiety-producing," said Barbara Romberg, a psychologist who founded Give an Hour, a national nonprofit group of mental health specialists who volunteer their time to military veterans and their families. "Even when parents are communicating with their sons and daughters, they can't be there for them. It's painful. It's stressful."

These days, Mark and Teresa Soto's emotions ride on calls from Joshua, 21, a rifleman in the Marines who is married with a young child, and Benjamin, 19, an Army sniper who signed up while still in high school. The brothers, who their parents said are each other's "best friends," deployed to different locations in Iraq late last year.

Joshua is "the quiet, reserved one," his mother said, cautious just like her. Benjamin is a "mini Mark," with a big personality and a large group of close friends. The brothers "played soldier" together as young boys, and their father coached both of them in football.

Their parents now live for the calls that come without notice, in the wee hours of the morning, in the middle of their business meetings, while they are grocery shopping – whenever the young men can grab a few minutes and an open line.

Often, the conversations last just long enough to cover the basics. How are you feeling? Are you staying warm? Did you get our package? Joshua and Benjamin are careful about disclosing details of their daily lives, both to protect military secrets and to protect their parents from worry. But Mark and Teresa Soto can read plenty from their voices.

"From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, I'm praying for my boys," Teresa Soto said. "It's the only way I can stay sane. As a mom, you give birth to your children, you raise them, you protect them. Then they choose to do something that you can't protect them from. If I don't hear from them for a week or so, I start to get very concerned."

More than a week without contact, and the determinedly upbeat Sotos, whose daughter Danielle is not in the military, start to scan news reports for casualties. They phone other military families for tidbits of information. They check Joshua's and Ben's MySpace pages to find out the last time they logged on.

"The first time Ben called after a week and a half of not hearing from him, I broke down at the sound of his voice," Teresa Soto said. "I couldn't help it."

Mark Soto is less emotional, but just as concerned. Borrowing from his mantra as a football coach at Granite Bay High School, he ends every discussion with his sons in the field with the same advice.

"I tell them, 'Keep your head on a swivel, because you never know what might hit you from the side,' " he said.

Neither Benjamin nor Joshua Soto had ever handled a gun until they entered the military, their parents said. Joshua, with a wife and a baby to support, signed on with the Marine Corps after high school. Benjamin, after a breakup with a girl, joined the Army when he was just 17.

Their parents were less than thrilled with their career choices.

"I tried to bribe them not to do it," Mark Soto said.

"I asked them, 'Don't you know how dangerous the world is?' " Teresa Soto recalled.

But both young men were determined to be in the military. When it looked like both might end up in Iraq, their mother threatened to file a petition requesting that they not be sent into combat at the same time in the same place. The boys protested, and won.

"They were adamant," Teresa Soto said. "They said they absolutely had to stay with their units."

The military has no figures on how many siblings are serving together in Iraq or other combat zones, and no policy prohibiting family members from doing so, Pentagon press officer Les Melnyk said.

Joshua and Benjamin Soto are stationed some 60 miles from each other in Iraq but have never crossed paths, and are unlikely to do so, their parents said. Benjamin is based north of Baghdad and travels with four other soldiers, scouting for insurgents under cover of darkness.

"There must be a God," Mark Soto quoted Benjamin recently in an electronic newsletter about his sons, because "I've been shot at so many times, and I can't believe I haven't been hit."

His brother is an infantryman stationed in Fallujah. Among other things, Joshua and other members of his unit hunt for hidden explosives.

Back home in Granite Bay, their parents wrap red, white and blue streamers and yellow ribbons around the trees in front of their house. In their living room, they display pictures of their sons in their military dress uniforms. Joshua Soto's wife, Alicia, and daughter, Kylee, now live with Mark and Teresa, which has helped them cope with the absence of their sons.

After his sons left, Mark Soto launched a newsletter offering updates about Joshua, Benjamin and other troops in the area who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soto distributes the newsletter to some 250 friends and relatives.

"It's basically my journal," Mark Soto said. "It's a way for me to get out my feelings, my frustrations, my worries," things that he sometimes is reluctant to discuss with his sons over the phone.

At Christmas, the newsletter described Mark and Teresa's efforts to collect gifts for the troops. With the help of other volunteers, they mailed out 75 boxes filled with socks, hand warmers, coffee, movies, games, playing cards and even letters from local kindergartners to men and women serving overseas.

"I don't want anyone to forget the sacrifices that these young people are making," Mark Soto said.

Benjamin's tour is supposed to last for 15 months; Joshua's for seven. But they could be in Iraq far longer, their parents acknowledged. When the Soto brothers finally come back home for good, their parents say, they are likely to be different young men than the ones who left.

"We try to stay positive, but we're not naive," Teresa Soto said. "The death and the fear and the danger, on a daily basis, is going to affect you. We know they will be changed when they come back. We are preparing for that," looking into programs that might help ease their transition.

In the meantime, the Sotos wait for their cell phones to ring with news from afar. A single call can lift their spirits, or send them into a bout of despair.

"I try not to obsess. If I do, I can't function," Teresa Soto said.

"We have to trust and believe that they will come home safe."

Ellie