October 21, 2009

I get tired of asking this question, but I'll ask it anyway: Should this happen in America? Should you have to tear yourself away from your family when they need you most - just to get necessary health care?

When so many other countries manage to take care of their citizens, why can't we?

56 days . . . 55 days . . . 54 days . . .

Chelsea Caudle began signing her text messages this summer with a countdown. At 14 years old, she knew no better way to express what was coming. Day Zero was to be Oct. 7, the day Dad left for Army basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. He was moving 950 miles from their home in Watertown, 950 miles from Mom.

He was leaving, even though Mom was sick with ovarian cancer. Even though he had been at her side through two long, miserable rounds of chemotherapy. Even though she now faced the likelihood of a third.

In fact, Dad was leaving because Mom was sick.

In March, he was laid off from his job as a raw materials coordinator for a plastics company called PolyOne, where he'd worked for 20 years. His severance package had provided several months' salary, but by August the paychecks were winding down. Soon the cost of his family health coverage was going to triple, then a few months after that, nearly triple again. They needed coverage so Mom could fight her cancer.

Dad's solution: a four-year hitch in the Army.

So Chelsea counted down the days to his departure. When the countdown reached 49, the text message signature began to annoy and depress her, so she stopped. High school was beginning, her freshman year.

In the first week of class, one of the teachers asked: What do your parents do?

The question jolted Chelsea back to the shifting ground of her family. Mom was working part time at a Culver's restaurant, preparing for more chemo, worrying about how to pay the bills. In less than six weeks, Dad would enter the Army and her care would be covered.

The tradeoff was that he would be far away when Mom needed him home, when Chelsea needed him, too. He would miss all of her high school years. The band performances. Prom.

Chelsea thought of all his absence would mean.

When she sent her next text message, she resumed the countdown.

36 days.


Mom and Dad are Michelle and Bill Caudle, high school sweethearts now 40 and 39, respectively. They have three children: Chelsea, the youngest; Alysha, a 21-year-old working at a nearby Holiday Inn; and Little Bill, an 18-year-old ex-high school wrestler.

The Caudles are not fond of politics. Michelle and Bill have paid little attention to the shouting this summer over health care reform. They have not gone to any of the town hall meetings. They are well aware that politicians and interest groups would like to trumpet their story or dismiss it to score points in the debate - and they would just as soon avoid all of that.

"We're not activists," Michelle said.

But this year the national story of lost jobs became their story. And the saga of families losing health insurance was about to become theirs, too.

Except that Bill wouldn't let it.

True, he had been interested in the Army for years. And he could always request an emergency leave to come home if Michelle's condition grew dire (Army regulations allow this if a family member's death is imminent).

But for weeks before enlisting, Bill had sought other options. He revised his résumé. He answered "help wanted" ads, then watched the companies cut workers instead of hiring them. He interviewed for one job that would have paid $13 an hour - less than half of what he was making at PolyOne. He didn't get the job.

Finally, on May 13, his 39th birthday, he signed the Army papers.

He remembers thinking: What did I do?

Chelsea learned about her dad's decision when Michelle picked her up from school. It had been a bad day already: a problem with one of her teachers, then she had to do the mile run.

"I have something to tell you," her mom said after Chelsea slid into her seat. "Your dad enlisted in the Army. There's more: He'll be gone for four years."

Chelsea started to cry.

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