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When my husband was sent to Iraq I said I'd go too.. ( and so did my teenage son ); EXCLUSIVE Front-line families.. and the wife who also went to war.

Byline: BY KATE JACKSON in BASRA Pictures by EMMA CATTELL

AS the wife of a sergeant major, Catherine Oldenburg had put up with just about everything the army threw at her.

They had spent most of their two-and-a-half year marriage living apart, while Fred was posted all over the world.

So when his regiment moved to Germany, Catherine decided to give up her life in Britain and follow him.

And when Fred was posted again she made up her mind to go with him - even if it meant living in the sand and blistering heat of Iraq.

Catherine made the courageous decision to quit her job and pack her desert boots for an "adventure" in Basra.

And it wasn't long before Tieran, Catherine's 19-year-old son from her previous relationship, joined them there, too.

"To begin with, my reasons were superficial," says Catherine, 42. "I didn't want to be at home and bored in Germany. I didn't want to carry on normal life without Fred.

"Because Fred's only got three years left in the Army, it was my last chance for an adventure."

While living in Germany, Catherine had worked at the shop run by the NAAFI, the Naval, Army and Air Forces Institute.

She soon discovered working there qualified her to work anywhere in the world - including the war-ravaged Middle East.

"She told me she was going to follow me out to Iraq," said Fred, 39, who is serving as part of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats.

"I'd been to Iraq before so my immediate response was, 'Forget it. It's a hellhole and it's too hot.'"

But the petite mum-of-two had made up her mind, and without giving two hoots about the 50-degree temperatures, she applied to work at the Army's base at Basra airport.

"It was entirely her decision," says Fred. "Then I came home one day and she told me Tieran's coming as well." Tieran had also applied - and been accepted - to work in the Basra NAAFI shop.

"I was more concerned about bringing him across. I'm out a lot and only come back to camp every seven to 10 days," says Fred.

"I thought about the threat of indirect fire - shots at the base - and God forbid, if something happened to him, she could blame me for it.

"The army is my job - but it could turn out horrible for them.

"But then, Catherine would be stuck in Germany not knowing what's going on and now I see it's good they're together for each other, and I can see them every few days."

On April 25, Fred headed to Kuwait for his five-week pre-tour training, and although Catherine and Tieran left later, they actually beat him to Basra.

"We made it safe for Fred," teases Catherine. Ask any of the lads round camp and they'll heap praise on the ever-smiling mum who never fails to cheer them up.

The NAAFI isn't allowed to sell alcohol in Iraq because it's a Moslem country.

"When you start living the life the soldiers do, you see that they come back after being out in the field for days and they're stinking and tired, and all they want is a hug and a milkshake," says Catherine, whose 23-year-old daughter, Saresh, is back home in Lydney, Gloucestershire where she works as a PA.

Her simple kind-hearted gestures, like supplying a tired squaddie with a cuppa, fill Fred with pride.

"She's like a Mother Theresa here," he says. "It means a lot to the younger guys to come back in and see a friendly smile and get a cup of tea.

"It's changed Catherine's outlook on Army life too. Before this, she used to joke about the guys going on tour, saying we would be in the swimming pool and out drinking. Now she sees them coming in sweating and smelling. And Tieran's really matured.

I'm hugely proud of them both." Life on camp hasn't been a holiday and Catherine admits there have been tough times. All three live in separate tents, kept apart by army regulations.

"It's a million times hotter than I thought it would be," she says. "I've travelled quite a bit so living rough doesn't bother me or Tieran, but when the air conditioning doesn't work it's not nice.

"The men only tell you as much as they like but until you've lived here, you can't get a flavour of it."

During the last few months, Catherine has learned not to panic when the siren goes off, indicating the base is being attacked.

"I'd only been here a few days when I first heard the alarm," says Catherine, who met Fred through a blind date organised by her daughter. "I dropped to the floor, covered my head and thought, 'F***ing hell, that's close!'

"It went off right by the shop. But while I was lying face down on the ground, looking at the floor, I started thinking about other things, like how we should get a pack of playing cards so we're not bored next time it happens. Now I play patience when the siren goes off.

"I wasn't scared that first time, but I was terrified for Tieran. We're not allowed to work in the same shop in case something happened to both of us at the same time.

"People might not think it but we're just as much on the front line because of the attacks on camp."

Living with such threats, sometimes on a daily basis, and knowing that lives have been lost in Iraq, makes Catherine more appreciative of the time she can spend with her husband.

"You get the real close calls and you think about how he could be taken away from me in a second, or I could be taken away from him," she says.

"It's not to be doleful, but it makes me want to spend more time with Fred.

"Even if I can only see him every week or two here, it's a lot better than once every three months at home."

It's clear the family have become even closer through their experience, and Catherine credits her son for keeping her strong at low moments.

"Without Tieran, I wouldn't have coped," says Catherine, who worked as an office manager before moving to Germany last August "He's my best friend and I burst with pride when I look at him. A lot of boys his age wouldn't cut the mustard but he's been brilliant."

For Tieran, whose friends back home are starting their first jobs in supermarkets and bank, it's a case of getting on with the job in hand.

"You just switch off," he says. "It's the only way to get through it. You can't worry about getting attacked." When Catherine goes back to Germany at the end of Fred's sixmonth tour, she has been asked to give a talk to other Army wives and girlfriends about her experience. The best piece of advice she can offer is to have patience.

""I understand far more about Fred as a soldier now," she says, "I also understand why the wives whinge. Their husband comes home from tour and it's difficult for wives to understand why he doesn't seem to care about a broken washing machine.

"It's not easy for them to slip back into being a husband and a father. "So just give them time."

And even with the heat, the attacks and the temperamental air conditioning, Catherine said she wouldn't have missed it for the world.

"Even if I'd known what it was going to be like, I would still have done it," she says.

It's a million times hotter than I thought it would be but now I know what Fred endures

4,100 the number of Brits serving in Iraq, the majority in and around Basra

CAPTION(S):

THE WIFE CATHERINE OLDENBURG AGE 42 JOB Works in the NAAFI; THESON TIERAN LEVERTON AGE 19 JOB Works in the NAAFI; THEHUSBAND FRED OLDENBURG AGE 39 JOB Sergeant Major
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 4, 2008
Words:1332
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