STAFF Sgt. Eleanor Brooks kissed her boys goodbye and never looked back. She didn't want them to see her cry. Brooks will spend the next 15 months serving a tour of duty in Iraq, but she's not the only one in her family fulfilling that commitment. Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Kenric Brooks, also is bound for Iraq. The couple are among about 300 soldiers in the 168th Brigade Support Battalion scheduled to deploy from Fort Sill in the next few weeks, post spokeswoman Emily Kelley said. They leave behind two energetic and wide-eyed boys — Joshua, 7; and Kenric, Jr., 5 — at a great-grandmother's house in a sleepy, countryside community outside Atlanta. In mid-June, the family of four parted ways in Monticello, Ga. "As we drove away, I didn't look back,” said Eleanor, 28. "I didn't want them to see Mommy upset and think, ‘Mommy's upset, so maybe we should be upset.' It was sad.” Eleanor and her husband spent the next 15 hours on the road back to Lawton in reflective silence. "We probably didn't talk more than a total of 30 minutes the entire trip back,” said Kenric Brooks, 29. "We were just alone with our thoughts.” Their thoughts included their chosen careers in the military, the Iraq war, renting their Lawton home, household items that remained unpacked, the storage of their vehicles, and each other. But mostly they thought about their two boys. "I just put my headset on, turned on my music and zoned out,” Eleanor Brooks said. "I thought about what I could have said, and what I did say. And was it enough?”
A family's rootsWar was the furthest thing from the couple's minds when they met in Fried-berg, Germany, nine years ago. For her, it was the first time she felt a strong urge to settle down and begin a family. The feeling came to her on the eve of a 30-day training excursion into the field. "I prayed to God to send me the man that I was going to marry in 30 days after I came back from the field,” Eleanor Brooks recalled. "When I returned, our church was going on a trip. As I walked up the annex, he (Kenric) was holding the door open for me. He just smiled and said, ‘Hi.' He's always had this great smile. Well, we got on the bus and ended up sitting next to each other. We just started talking. I looked at him, and I knew he was the one.” A whirlwind courtship ensued, and within five months the two young soldiers were driving to Denmark to get married. Thirteen months later, Eleanor Brooks gave birth to the couple's first child, Joshua. Kenric Jr., affectionately called "TJ” by his family, arrived less than two years later. The addition of two boys only reinforced the couple's commitment to each other and their careers. Eleanor Brooks even left the Army for a time for reserve status while Kenric Brooks was stationed at Fort Gordon near Augusta, Ga. She returned after an 18-month hiatus. The military offered security and a regular paycheck for a job she performed with expertise. She gambled on a military career after graduating from high school in Cherry Point, N.C., a tiny coastal town with one main road, a gas station, and no apparent future. As the third born of four sisters, Eleanor looked beyond the confines of her childhood home for a fresh start. "With two older sisters, there was no money for college,” Eleanor laughed. "So, I joined the Army. It was the only way out of that small community.” Kenric found himself on a similar path after graduating from Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta in 1995. A thirst to travel and some indecision about his future led him to join the U.S. Army. He ended up finding the love of his life and starting a family. "Here we are now, going to Iraq,” said Kenric Brooks. "When you're 17 and joining the Army, you're not thinking of such things.”
The chosen lifeNeither Kenric nor Eleanor Brooks views their sacrifice as any greater than those of their fellow soldiers abroad. "What about single parents who have to deploy?” Eleanor Brooks said. "I think about what they sacrifice when they deploy. Everyone has trials, and there is always someone worse off.” The dangers they will encounter in Iraq are unknown. Kenric specializes in electrical engineering, although his skills are far-reaching. Eleanor Brooks is officially listed as a cook. Still, she realizes even she could end up on a convoy aboard a gunner's truck. She speaks from experience. During a 12-month tour in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, she learned to be flexible. "Last time I ended up filling requisition orders, and they have me down as a cook,” she said. "You just never know what to expect until you get there.” Leaving is another story for Eleanor Brooks, although this time she expects the parting to be more intense. Kenric Brooks won't be back home watching over their boys. Eleanor Brooks worries about Joshua having a seizure, or Kenric Jr. being afraid of the dark. How will Joshua react at a new school? Will Kenric Jr. learn his ABCs before he begins kindergarten? "It's a bad deal, leaving the kids,” she said. "On the other hand, in the military, they expect you to go to war. It's just a bad deal, but this is the life we have chosen.” But Kenric Brooks, for now, harbors no regrets. He loves being a soldier but wonders at times if this is truly the best way to provide for his loved ones. "How will this affect our family?” he said. "I don't think we're really going to know that answer until maybe 10, 15, 20 years down he road.” For now, he finds comfort in knowing his boys will be living with his grandmother, Alice Brooks, on the old family land in Monticello, Ga. As the son of a single, working mother, he discovered firsthand the gift his 67-year-old grandmother has with children. Alice Brooks played a major role in raising Kenric and his two siblings. The widow of a Korean War veteran, she understands her role is just as important now. "So many of our young people are going over there, and some aren't coming back,” she said. "You'd think a husband and wife wouldn't both have to go.” But Kenric Brooks believes he and his wife are simple parents who take pride in their jobs and provide for their family and is glad to have such strong support. "At least we have family we can turn to,” he said. "A lot of people are alone in this world.”
A country settingStout oak trees and tall pines mingle on the rural Georgia acreage where Alice Brooks is building a new home. The land is carved out of the woods as well as the family's original homestead, and for the next 16 months, it will be Joshua and Kenric Jr.'s home while their parents serve in Iraq. Monticello offers the children a serene, country setting and a piece of family history. John Henry Johnson — the boys' fourth-great grandfather — originally settled the land 45 minutes southeast of Atlanta. Despite being unable to write, Johnson eventually amassed more than 1,000 acres as a farmer — a handsome sum for a southern black man at the dawn of the 20th century. Today, 100 acres remain intact for Johnson's grandchildren to share. "I've seen the old bank deposit slips where John Henry just signed an ‘X.' He couldn't write, but evidently the old man could count,” Alice Brooks joked. On the day they left, Kenric Brooks showed Joshua a world map while they sat at the table for roast beef, green beans and cornbread. Kenric traced his finger from Monticello across the Atlantic Ocean to Iraq. "It's a long way,” Joshua said. "It is,” Alice Brooks interjected. "We can't walk over there.” "No, you can't walk over there,” Kenric Brooks said. "But we'll be back, though. ... We'll be back.” Throwing up his arms, Joshua yelled, "October!” "October what?” Kenric Brooks asked. Joshua stammered for the answer before his father slowly said, "2008.” Joshua tried to calculate the time in his mind. "Say, ‘All right,'” Alice Brooks again interjected as she looked across the table at Joshua. "We'll make it. We'll make it. We may be sad a little time, but we'll make it.” After dinner, hugs and kisses were exchanged out front. Then Joshua bolted back inside the house to play. Kenric Jr. lingered with his mother, father, and great-grandmother. Finally, his parents bent down, kissed him goodbye, and told him they loved him very much before walking away. Eleanor Brooks never looked back. The car drove away down a dirt road. Kenric Jr. moved down the walk to wave goodbye, remaining until he saw only a cloud of dust. Contributing: Staff Photographer John Clanton
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Kenric Brooks hugs his son Joshua, 7, as Brooks and his wife, Eleanor, leave the children with their great-grandmother in Monticello Ga., on June 18. Kenric and Eleanor Brooks soon will leave for Iraq. BY JOHN CLANTON, THE OKLAHOMAN