As Iraq war interrupts a family, life here goes on

The Baltimore Sun

Under Sunday's sunny skies, one son shot baskets in the driveway while the other was at swimming. Maybe later in the day they'd all go for a bike ride, to enjoy the dazzling weather and dad's last weekend in town for a while.

Charles Blomquist is headed to Iraq, where what was a particularly beautiful day here was hideously and horribly bloody there - at least 60 people killed in the usual complement of shootings, suicide bombings and sectarian violence.

You have to wonder how many other people in Baltimore, similarly basking in one of the most delightful weekends around here lately - spring had finally sprung, the Orioles swept Toronto - gave Iraq much thought. The fact that it loomed large for the Blomquists is another reminder of how vast the gulf is between those intimately affected by the war and those whose daily lives are largely uninterrupted by it.

On the face of it, you'd assume the Blomquists would belong to the latter group: He's a lawyer, married to a doctor. They live in Roland Park; their boys go to private school. At a time of an all-volunteer military, they too could have taken a pass.

But both Blomquist, who is a prosecutor in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, and his wife, Joan, a gynecologist, have a history of service, and he sees his part-time work with the Maryland National Guard as an extension of that.

The Blomquists, who met at Grinnell College in Iowa and married in 1988, joined the Peace Corps together. After that, they followed each other down various educational and professional paths - med school and residency for her, seminary school, a job with Catholic Relief Services and law school for him - and yet the Peace Corps seems to remain the guiding spirit in their lives. Joan Blomquist, who in addition to her practice heads a training fellowship at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, participates in an annual medical mission to Niger, and her husband has joined the Guard and been deployed both at home and abroad.

"I thought I could do what I did in the Peace Corps in uniform," Blomquist, 43, says.

And, for a while, that was the case - in the summer of 2004, he was sent to Afghanistan as part of a civil affairs unit that contracted to build schools, dig wells and launch literacy programs.

But, in what will become a running theme as he, his wife and I talk about his coming deployment, Iraq isn't Afghanistan, he says. Blomquist says he can't say much about the specifics of the mission. Earlier this month, the Maryland National Guard announced that 1,300 of its soldiers, the largest call-up since Normandy, are being deployed to Iraq.

"With Afghanistan, we always told the boys he's in civil affairs - he's not there to fight the war, he's there to rebuild the country," says Joan Blomquist.

She is trying to prepare for a year of going it alone - keeping her busy practice and training program going, even as she manages her sons' equally active lives of school, homework, piano lessons and sports teams.

"It's important for our kids to know life goes on," she says, "and we're not just sitting around, waiting, for a year."

It's not quite what she signed up for. "We went to a very liberal college, then joined the Peace Corps," she says in a tone that asks: So how did I end up a military wife?

"There wasn't full disclosure," Charles Blomquist says with a smile.

The year he was in Afghanistan took its toll, with the family's dog dying, and the kids growing up without their dad. He did receive two weeks' leave, and they planned to all meet in Italy - where his mother lives - but Charles ended up getting delayed in Afghanistan. By the time he made it to Italy, she and the boys were about to go back home, so they only overlapped for a couple of days.

"It is a huge sacrifice," he says - and he means more for his family than for him.

He is accompanying Joan on a previously scheduled medical conference this week, then will head to Fort Dix, N.J., for training and then to Iraq this summer.

Of how he feels about his coming deployment, he will only say this: "As an officer in the military, I'm beholden to our civilian leadership. As a civilian, I also have my own opinions. Those have to take a back seat to my role in the military."

He remains fully committed to the reservist's duty. "Democracy needs citizen-soldiers," he says. "It needs people to answer the call."

And for all the bad news out of Iraq, he remains hopeful. Having traveled the globe for Catholic Relief Services and prosecuted homicides in Baltimore City, he's seen the worst but also the best that humanity can wield.

"The human spirit is alive and well, and it can survive the most horrendous conditions," Blomquist says.

He's been a prosecutor since 2001 and moved into the homicide unit in November. Having served in Afghanistan - where he saw colleagues injured and killed just 10 days before they were to have returned home - he feels he brings "a deeper understanding" to his work with victims' families.

"Much to my surprise, they're very supportive of what I'm doing," he said of having to transfer their cases to other prosecutors in advance of his deployment. "Here's someone, a loved one has been taken away, and they put that aside and they were concerned about me, and my safety."

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