Families counting the days
For some area families who have relatives serving in the military, the upcoming holidays will be a bright spot in their year.
"We just got awesome news yesterday," Jennifer Tate, the step mother of Matt Tate, said last Wednesday. "He's coming home, he's being permanently discharged from Iraq."
On Monday, Tate said that Matt had arrived the day before at Fort Sill, Ark.
"We are very, very excited. We are so relieved -- finally, our prayers have been answered."
Matt may receive a four-day pass to come home for Thanksgiving. And, an official 30-day leave will start Dec. 2.
"We're real excited to have him home in the states," Jennifer said. "We're glad he's safe and sound."
Matt, a 2002 graduate of Tonganoxie High School, was trained in field artillery to work with multiple launch rocket systems.
Three from home
Terri and Gordon Brest, and their five children who are still at home are eagerly awaiting the Christmas holiday -- and their reunion with the Brest's oldest child, Chris Brest, who has spent the past eight months in the Middle East.
Serving in the same unit as Brest are two other area men -- Scott Ward and Jay Thorne, both from Tonganoxie. The men, who are members of the Gardner 129th U.S. Army Reserve Transportation Company, were deployed in April to Kuwait.
The unit hauls tanks and other heavy military equipment into Iraq.
"It's kind of funny because he said Scott Ward orders parts for the trucks on the computers, Jimmy Thorne fixes the trucks, and Chris drives the trucks," Terri Brest said.
When Chris, who is 23, first went to the war, his mother said she took comfort in the fact that her son was in a transport unit, and not expected to be fighting major battles or doing invasions. When Chris drives heavy-equipment trucks between Kuwait and Baghdad, Jimmy Thorne is likely there.
But as the war progressed, transport units such as his have become targets themselves.
Brest said that as she realized this, she's had to focus more and more on placing her trust with a higher power.
"We just have to take comfort in the fact that he knows the Lord and God's watching over him," Brest said. "That's better than I could do."
Home for Thanksgiving
Scott Ward will be returning home for a two-week leave on Friday, said his grandparents, Gene and Dot Ward, who live in Tonganoxie.
"We'll have Thanksgiving and an early Christmas," Dot said. "He will be trying to see all of his friends while he's here, so it's kind of exciting."
On Dec. 7, Scott will head back to Kuwait, where he has been stationed since April.
Gayle Ward, Scott's mother, his father, Scott, and his brothers, Ray and B.J., can hardly wait to welcome him home.
"The boys are all waiting for him to get home and we're all going to go to the airport Friday afternoon," Gayle said.
For the family it's been a trying year, she said.
"We don't watch the news very much," Gayle said, explaining that after Scott went to Kuwait in the spring, they followed the news closely -- until that became too hard.
"It's bad enough that your son's over there," Gayle said. "But then you worry about all of them that are over there -- you think about them constantly. I think the news intensified it so much that you say, 'OK, I can't take this anymore,' and that's the part that has to go."
Thorne's leave came early
Dee and Jim Thorne, Tonganoxie, know it's likely they won't see their son, Jimmy, until April at the earliest.
Jimmy already used this year's leave when in June he returned to Kansas for the birth of his daughter, Lexi Marie.
When Jimmy enlisted in the reserves, his parents didn't think it was likely their son would end up halfway around the world.
"We never even imagined," Dee said. "But I'm proud of all of them for doing their duty and sticking with it. I hate it that they're over there, but I'm extremely proud of them."
Dee has resigned herself to the fact that their son won't be coming home for the holidays.
"We miss him," said Jimmy's wife, Amy. "I take pictures of the baby and send him lots of pictures all the time."
Amy said she and her husband e-mail daily and talk on the phone every other day or so.
"My phone doesn't leave my side," Amy said. "If I'm somewhere where I have no cell phone service, I leave him a voicemail to let him know where I'm at because I never want to miss a phone call from him."
Most of his calls come about 4 p.m. -- about midnight his time, she said.
"He tries to call when everybody there is in bed so we can talk longer," Amy said.
Amy said she thinks that for the most part Jimmy is in a secure area.
"But it's war, you know -- they are in a danger zone as long as they're on the ground over there," Amy said. "The most dangerous part is when they are on the road, but they are prepared."
The couple is eager to be together again.
Amy said Jimmy misses his family, of course, and green grass, trees and showers. It's the pictures sent by family members that help him make it through his days.
"They say that pictures mean more than anything over there," Amy said. "It's the closest thing they can have to help them feel closer to the family."
Amy, whose father is retired from the Marines, said that during her childhood the family lived at 30 different addresses. That experience helps her cope with things now, she said.
"I am so used to it," Amy said. "There's definitely nothing new here -- it never gets easier though."
Daniel Saunders' family won't be seeing him this Thanksgiving, but they certainly will be thinking of him.
Last month, the 25-year-old Saunders who is stationed in northern Iraq could have left the military for good -- but instead he re-enlisted, said his sister, Sara Moraille.
"He wrote in his letter that he signed on for two more years," Moraille said.
Although she's concerned for her brother's safety, Moraille said it's important for him to do what he feels he needs to do. Still, she worries.
"He's with the 101st and of course this past week or two has been awful for the 101st," Moraille said.
In recent weeks, the division has had several helicopters shot down, and more than a dozen military men and women, out of 20,000 in the division, have died.
Saunders has been in Iraq since March.
"As far as we know, he's probably going to be there for a full year total," Moraille said.
Moraille said she wasn't totally surprised that her brother decided to stay. For one thing, he's extremely proud of the men in his platoon, she said.
And, she said, he's always been an active person.
"I know Daniel and he is a go-getter," Moraille said. "I can't picture him sitting behind a desk. He's just action-oriented and if he just follows his heart and does what excites him, we're excited for him. But we do want him to come home."
Innis to reunite with family
Next month, Tanna and Tim Innis will finally get to see their son, Thomas, again. It's been a year and a half since they last were together.
Thomas, an F-16 crew chief, is currently stationed in Germany where he lives with his wife, Amy. The couple will be returning to Kansas on Dec. 15 for a 30-day leave.
"I can't wait to see him and Amy," Tanna said. For the Tonganoxie family, the wait has been long, especially during the early part of the war, when Thomas was stationed in Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
However, several months ago, Thomas was sent back to Germany where he helps keep planes running.
A month ago, she said, he even flew a jet.
"He went to Poland for a NATO mission and he got to actually fly the F-16," Tanna said, noting a pilot was still in the cockpit when Thomas took the controls. "That was a lifelong dream. There were quite a few different nations there and he flew in a dogfight."
Tanna said the family, who calls Thomas "Bubba," have noticed that since the war, he seems to take his family even more seriously than before. They've particularly noticed this when he calls home.
"He never hangs up the phone without saying 'I love you,'" Tanna said. "We say 'Yeah, we know you love us Bubba.'"
Just out of high school
Tyler Robinson was a 17-year-old high school senior when he signed up for the Marines.
"Staff Sgt. Gibson, an Overland Park recruiter, came in and set up a display for the Marines," Tyler said. "I told him I wanted to join. I went the following week to interview with him -- he got me enlisted."
Tyler's interest in the military was piqued when, as a sophomore in high school, a military recruiter talked to students in an assembly.
"I thought it might be a good deal," Tyler said.
In August, less than three months after receiving his Tonganoxie High School diploma, Tyler left for boot camp in California.
The session included physical training, rifle training, in which Tyler's shooting ranked him in the expert marksmanship category, and the crucible.
The crucible, Tyler said, is the culmination of boot camp.
"We walk 54 miles in three days," Tyler said. "We go through sleep deprivation and food deprivation to get the feeling of what it might be like to be out there in the field if you were in a combat situation."
On Nov. 6, Tyler's work was rewarded when he participated in the eagle globe ceremony and received the emblem that Marines wear on the front of their hats.
"It was a heavy-hearted deal," Tyler said. "I got a little misty-eyed. You put out so much in boot camp -- it's a good feeling to finally know you're a marine."
Currently, Tyler is home on an extended 24-day boot camp leave. Because he's a recruiter assistant, he's receiving more than the normal 10 days of leave.
His next stop will take him back to California where he will undergo military combat training.
The 23-day session will train him in "almost all the weapons you would possibly use in the field -- mortars, M-16s, and grenades," Tyler said.
And, after that, Tyler will head to Pensacola, Fla., where he will be schooled in aviation mechanics. The training could take three to four months, or possibly longer, he said. And after that, he has no idea where he'll go.
The first months in the military bring various emotions.
"When you join you feel patriotic," Tyler said. "But then you (the country) go to war -- it scares you at first, but then once you graduate from boot camp you're anxious because you want to apply what you have learned."
During the first two weeks of boot camp, recruits are homesick, said Tyler, who is the son of Gary and Debby Heath, Tonganoxie, and Randy and Sharon Robinson, Baldwin.
"But after you get into your barracks that you're going to be in the rest of the time there, you start meeting your platoon members and making a lot of friends," Tyler said. "It's another home."
Tyler said when he enlisted a year ago, his parents were supportive, but his mother was worried that that a war might break out.
Ironically, Tyler said that's partly why he decided on the Marines.
"It's the best place you can be," Tyler said, noting that he hopes he will be called up. "The Marines is the most disciplined and constantly deployed for action."
Cathy Plaster's son, Jason Plaster, will get to come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The 20-year-old Tonganoxie man enlisted in the U.S. Army this year. After completing boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., Plaster next went to training in at the Aberdeen proving ground in Maryland.
"He will graduate from Aberdeen on January 29," Cathy said. "And he's supposed to be stationed after that at Fort Riley. He said there's a good possibility that he will go straight to Iraq from Fort Riley."
Cathy, who attended her son's graduation from boot camp, has learned more than she'd like to know in recent months. There are dangers in war, she realizes.
But still, she's proud of her son.
"I'm very proud of him," Cathy said. "I'm worried, but I'm just so proud of him."
The military has made a difference in her son, she said.
"I think he acts a lot more mature -- he's standing straight and he's very proud," Cathy said.
Her son made a concentrated effort to join the Army, she said, noting that when one recruiter wasn't available to talk to, he went out of his way to find another.
"He made the comment one time that 'I just want to be a hero,'" Cathy said.
Her son, she said, plans to become an airbound mechanic, which concerns her even more.
"They go in on parachutes and fix the equipment," Cathy said. "I said the only time you have to parachute in is if something breaks in battle, and he said, 'Oh, that would be fun.'"
For Cathy, who said it's been tough having her son away, the coming months won't be any easier.
"I miss him," she said. "He's the only one left, so I'm all alone. I miss him terribly, but I'm also so proud of him."
99 days and counting
Jerry and Tina Coleman are counting.
As of Monday, only 99 days remained until their son, Nick Hoegler, would be coming home.
Since May, the 23-year-old employee at Tonganoxie's First State Bank and Trust, has been stationed in Iraq. Nick is a member of the Army Reserves out of Belton, Mo.
Part of the time Nick works on computers in air-conditioned tents. Part of the time he does guard duty at the gate and tower. And part of the time, his parents have no idea what Nick's doing -- and they've learned not to ask.
"There was one week I didn't hear from him," Tina said. "I asked him later, and he said you don't want to know. I said OK."
Like some of the other military families interviewed, the Colemans shy from watching news about the war.
"I worry enough without knowing what's going on," Tina said.
For the Colemans, it's been a rough year.
A fire nearly destroyed their house on Nov. 26, 2002. Three months later, Nick was called into active duty.
Although Nick is half a world away, he keeps in touch by reading The Mirror and other area newspapers online, his mother said.
"When there was a chemical fire in Lawrence, he knew about it before I did -- he told me," Tina said.
And like other service men and women, they appreciate notes from home. In recent months, Tina said, noting that it's important to continue writing and e-mailing those who are in the military.
During the past months the phone, and the computer, have been her lifeline to her son, and that's what keeps the family going.
"As long as I keep hearing from him I do pretty good," Tina said.
As for Thanksgiving, Tina and Jerry and their daughters, Hannah and Rachel, plan to open their home to relatives, staying close to the phone in case Nick calls, and of course, Tina said, saying a special prayer for their son in Iraq.