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Editor's Note: This series was first published in the Carlsbad Current-Argus in July 2013.

NM oil wife says she prays every day her husband returns home

When Elexis Towler kisses her husband, Dusty, goodbye as he heads off to work at an oil rig site some two hours away from home, she keeps a positive attitude he will return home safely to her and their 18-month-old daughter, Jaclyn.

Towler's husband is employed by Silver Oak Drilling as a tool pusher. He generally lives and works at the rig site for four days, working 12-hour shifts, and then he is off four days. Recently, he worked eight days straight before he was able to come home to his family.

Towler said although equating the dangerous job of a soldier in a combat zone to an oilfield worker's job could be argued, she said both are dangerous jobs and when they kiss their loved ones goodbye, "you pray they will stay safe on the job and come home."

"Soldiers protect our country, while oilfield workers keep our country running through the extraction of oil and gas and help keep our country energy independent. They are two important jobs. What workers on oil rigs do is a different type of dangerous," she said, pointing out the number of oilfield related deaths and injuries that have occurred in Eddy County in the past two years.

Towler, who holds an associate degree in psychology from Eastern New Mexico University Roswell, said she tries not to worry when her husband is at work, but it's hard not to.

"I won't lie and say I don't worry. It's pretty scary. I worry if something were to happen to him. The question is always in the back of my mind if I would be able afford to keep this house we just bought in December, and I worry how hard it would be for Jaclyn to be without her daddy," said Towler, who has been married just over two years.

She said while the company her husband works for "treats its employees right," the fear is always there that the life insurance benefits they both have may not be enough to raise a child and provide a good life without her spouse.

More: Natural gas pipeline to carry crude oil from Permian to Gulf next year

At 23, Towler is mature and practical. She says she knew what she was getting into when she married her husband. Her father, Hector Reza, worked in the industry for 20 years and it provided a good living for his family. Her husband also comes from a family of oilfield workers.

"I'm proud of Dusty. When I met him, he was working as a driller. He has worked his way up from a driller to a tool pusher," she said. "He works hard and provides for us. It enables me to be a stay-at-home mom. For my part, I make sure when he goes to work and leaves us here, he has nothing to worry about. I take care of the bills, the house and the other-day-to-day things.

"I don't want him to be distracted on the job. He needs to keep his focus on the job. He has 15 other guys' lives in his hands. I think I'm a pretty good money manager. I keep us on a budget and I don't over spend. I don't want to have to live paycheck to paycheck. I know Dusty appreciates that."

She says the hardest thing for her being an oilfield wife are the long nights alone after she puts her daughter to bed. To keep herself busy during the day, Towler provides child care for two working moms whose husbands also work in the oilfields.

"I don't need the additional income, although it is nice, but I do it to keep myself busy. If I didn't babysit, I would probably take 100 trips into town just for something to do," said Towler, an Artesia native who now resides in the county.

She said because her husband's co-workers come from various communities, networking with their wives is not an option.

The co-worker's wives are scattered and it is difficult to stay in touch with them.

However, Towler said she is friends with oilfield wives in Artesia whose husbands work for different companies.

"I'm pretty independent. But I do have family in Artesia to fall back on if I should need them. I have cousins who I hang out with, and I visit a lot with my grandma. She makes the best food, ever," Towler said.

While her husband is away at work, Towler has a set routine. She gets up early so she can be ready to welcome the two 5-year-olds an 18-month-old when their moms drop them off on their way to work.

Jaclyn is an early riser and is happy to have kids to play with.

The children watch their favorite show on television and then play with Jaclyn's toys. Towler interacts with the children and helps the older two color inside the lines of their coloring books to improve their motor skills.

While they color or watch TV, Towler does a few chores around the house.

She is handy with a screw driver and fixed the curtain rod above her dining room window that had worked itself loose.

Around 11:30 a.m., she provides lunch for the children - on this particular day it was a grilled cheese sandwich and carrot sticks. Nap time came shortly thereafter, providing Towler a little quiet time.

Towler's husband was due home for a four-day weekend the day after her interview for this story, so, while the children were napping, Towler did a little house cleaning.

"I always try to get it all done before he comes home. I want him to come home to a clean and tidy house, not that my house is not clean or tidy most of the time. I don't mow the yard - Dusty does that when he comes home," Towler said while wiping down the kitchen countertops after lunch. "When Dusty is home, we go fishing, hunting or do some target practicing at the range. We might go out to eat and a movie or hang out with family. But the time flies by too fast."

Towler said prior to her husband's return to work, grocery shopping and laundry are two things that are high on the list of "must do." She said while the company provides housing for its employees, bedding and food are the employees' responsibility.

"I'm basically buying food for two households," Towler said. "Dusty has his own quarters at the site. It's not fancy, but it does have a microwave and stove. But we had to furnish everything else he needs."

She said although her husband is away from home for days at a time, the company he works for has been generous in allowing him time off when he has needed to go home for a family emergency, such as the shooting death of his brother in Roswell last year by law enforcement, and the birth of his daughter.

"When I was pregnant, Dusty was able to come to go to my doctor appointments. They also gave him time off for the birth of Jaclyn. I was appreciative of that. Not all companies in this industry are employee friendly," Towler said.

She reflects on the issue of some women being left alone for long periods of time and tending to stray from their marriages and said: "It does happen. I know wives who have been unfaithful while their husband works in the oilfield. But that's not for me. When Dusty is at work, I hang out with my family or I stay home. I have a young cousin who loves to stay with me, and Jaclyn loves her. Gossip can also kill a marriage, so I make sure no one has anything to gossip about."

Oilfield History: Illinois Camp

Although she would prefer her daughter not to follow in her footsteps and marry an oilfield worker, Towler said if that came to pass, she would not discourage her.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of. The industry has provided our families with a good living," she said. "But my advice to her, or any young women considering a life with someone who works in the oilfields, would be stay strong and never give up. In any marriage, you have to work at it, but being married to an oilfield worker sometimes can be very hard. You have to have strong faith and be willing to work together. I think trust is important. Without it, that's when difficulties set in."

Wife says husband's long hours leave her feeling like a single parent

Nikki Martin knew what kind of life she was signing up for when she said "yes" to her boyfriend Nick's proposal of marriage during the July 4 fireworks show in 2010.

He had been working in the oilfield since before they met and started dating during her senior year at Carlsbad High School.

Three years, two wedding rings and one kid later, Nick Martin is still doing what he's always known as a pusher for Kodiak Oil and Gas.

He works in the oilfield in Texas and has a two-hour commute each way.

And though she's proud of her husband for doing what he loves and doing it well, Martin said she's acutely aware of the danger he's in every day - especially after hearing or reading about freak accidents in which oilfield workers have lost their limbs and sometimes their lives.

More: Environmentalists, industry spar over gas emissions at Eddy County 

"When he was working for Fusion, he was working side-by-side with a guy whose finger got cut completely off. It easily could've been Nick," Martin said. "I tell him every day to be careful. I try to put it out of my mind, but I think about it a lot. I don't know what I would do if I lost him."

Martin knows what it's like to be raised in a single-parent home, and she doesn't want that for her son.

Nick - who towers over his wife and son with his tall, lanky frame - is an adoring husband and father when he's around, but his long days at work sometimes make Martin feel like she's in her mother's shoes.

"Hunter is a handful. He's with me all day, and I actually have to discipline," Martin said.

The sometimes-shy-sometimes-not little boy often clings to his mother with a finger or two in his mouth, looking ever so handsome and innocent; but the toddler also decides to test his mother's patience at times by exhibiting traits of the terrible twos.

But by the time his daddy gets home, Hunter is ready to show only his good side while vying for his father's attention before Nick is too tired to stay awake and play any longer after a long day of physical labor in the hot sun.

Nick leaves for work at 6 a.m. during the week and doesn't return until 9 or 10 p.m. sometimes, Martin said. He's also on call 24/7 and has been awakened in the middle of the night for overflow emergencies.

And then there are those evenings when Nick comes home smelling like marijuana or nicotine smoke after being in a work truck all day. It's enough to make Martin turn her head before he gets a chance to change.

As a boss in the oilfield, one of the things Nick deals with is enforcing drug rules, Martin said.

He doesn't allow his crew members to smoke in company trucks, but sharing vehicles sometimes leaves him smelling like the people who used them before him.

"It's gross!" said Martin, who is not accustomed to that type of lifestyle.

There are benefits to being an oil wife though, she said.

In her case, the money her husband makes is enough to pay the bills and put her through college.

She was able to quit her job in retail and stay home with Hunter when she's not taking classes for her bachelor's degree online through New Mexico State University.

And while living frugally in a single-wide trailer in the Big Sky mobile home park surrounded by their pet dogs and chickens, which are a constant source of entertainment, the couple can save up for the house they want to build, the baby girl they'd like to adopt and the oilfield company Nick hopes to one day start.

Martin said she and her husband often playfully fight about Hunter's future and whether or not he'll work with his dad.

And though Martin said she would prefer that her husband and her son go to college and learn to do something less stressful - largely so she can breathe a little easier - deep down inside she knows her husband will never want to leave.

"Before Nick, I didn't have any respect for them (oilfield workers) at all, but I see how hard he works. It's all he's ever known. He couldn't do anything else," Martin said.

And she's prepared to accept the lot of being an oilfield wife for the rest of her life, currently as a full-time student and mom, and doing all of it while trying not to worry about her best friend.

Young Eddy County family adjusting to life in the oil fields

Her dream was to learn Chinese, move to China and live in a secluded house with a gorgeous view of the Great Wall.

Well, Stephanie Thomas mastered the language and is living in virtual isolation, but her view doesn't quite live up to one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It's of a propane pipeline in the middle of the desert between Carlsbad and Hobbs in a location unrecognized by a GPS or the U.S. Postal Service.

Wife of Transwestern Pipeline technician and station operator Matthew Thomas, Stephanie spends her days at home - one of two houses on the company's property - with their baby, four pets and the occasional tarantula for company.

It's a quiet and peaceful existence with the machinery and nearby highway serving as background noise, she said, but one without much human interaction until the weekly weekend trek to Carlsbad to check their P.O. box and do some grocery shopping.

It gets lonely sometimes, Thomas said, even for a hermit at heart. After growing up on the Indiana countryside - where she still had neighbors - she joined the U.S. Navy and got used to the tight quarters of military barracks and bases teeming with people.

More: Earthworks tours Eddy County oil and gas sites.

Matthew and Stephanie Thomas met in Monterey, Calif., in Chinese language school when they were both in the Navy. When Stephanie was transferred to Hawaii as a translator, Matthew requested the same move, and the two eloped the day he got off the plane in March 2008.

The couple finished their active duty assignments - Stephanie will end her two-year stint in the Navy Reserve this year - and moved to Roswell to be closer to family where Matthew decided to try his hand in the oil and gas industry. He landed a job with Transwestern Pipeline in December.

Best friends by choice and, one could say, lack of many more people to pick from, the Thomases are still adjusting to life as parents and as an oil and gas family.

At a little over 3 months old, baby Alastair seems to be enjoying life in this world with his adorable gurgles and easy-going personality.

He's daddy's boy through and through, but has enough smiles and cuddles to share with his mom during the day as they wait for their beloved husband and father to get home.

One day last month, Thomas was not expecting the greeting she got from her husband after a long day of work. "You were almost rich! I almost died today!" This was not a funny joke to her, she said, especially with an infant on hand.

Matthew Thomas' typical day involves driving between 50 and 500 miles as he inspects the 184 miles of pipeline his company is accountable for in Southeast New Mexico. His job is generally 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they get free company housing - but their family pays a steep price: As one of two on-site employees, Thomas is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But Matthew Thomas likes his job, he said, despite his own admission that it can get dangerous at times - like the day he came home and surprised his wife with that unusual declaration.

A pipeline had started leaking and could have sparked had his crew not shut it down in time.

"Any type of rupture can blow an arm off," he said. "There's bad stuff that happens."

Still new to the career, he hasn't personally seen anything quite that dramatic, but he's heard his father, a veteran of the industry, tell plenty of stories.

But the dangerous aspect of her husband's job isn't something she likes to think about.

"I just prefer to be blissfully unaware. The potential is devastatingly awful if anything did go wrong, but they have so many safeguards." And it's part of her husband's job to make sure those safeguards are followed.

Because of her military background, Thomas was able to draw some parallels between the life of a military wife and that of an oil and gas industry wife.

"I didn't have the typical military wife experience because one, I was also in (the military), and two, Matthew didn't deploy and he was never on ship duty when we were together," Thomas said. "I would imagine though that dependent spouses would tell you it's extremely similar, with being gone for long periods of time with limited communication in a high risk area."

And while Matthew Thomas has endured quite the career change - from working special security in the military to maintaining pipelines - he has continued to serve his countrymen by protecting them from harm on the oilfield and providing them with the comforts, such as propane gas heat, of living in America.

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