Steve Ranson

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December 25, 2012
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Mission to Afghanistan: My mom is a soldier

Not only are mothers who wear the military uniform focused on their mission in Afghanistan, but they also have an eye and ear glued to their children's activities in Nevada.

One such soldier is Spc. Leann Hancock of Silver Springs, a mother of two young sons and a daughter, who is at Forward Operating Base Shank about 45 miles southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, in a high desert valley. Shank is near much of the insurgent activity in Logar Province.

"I miss the daily mundane chores such as them brushing their teeth, breaking up the squabbles and helping them with homework," Hancock said. "I go through melancholiness, but I must focus to stay on a routine here. I am fortunate they are being taken care at home by their father."

The sight of Chinook 47D helicopters flying over her house intrigued Hancock about serving her country. Hancock, who said she is in her early 30s, enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard five years ago after her children began to grow up and attend school. Her job in Afghanistan is a Chinook helicopter mechanic, a crucial job to keep the choppers flying day and night.

"As far as I am concerned, I am fixing helicopters to make them fly," she added.

Serving in the National Guard, though, gives Hancock a sense of purpose.

"I was a stay at home mom. All I wanted to do was raise them as babies and be there for them," she recollected. "They started going to school, and then I had time on my hands."

Technology, though, has made deployment easier for this Silver Springs mom. She and her husband, David, email regularly, and she calls home on weekends. According to Hancock, she carries a piece of paper in her pocket, and where she thinks of items to discuss with her husband, she writes them down.

"It's a lot easier to do it that way," she added.

When Hancock calls home and talks to her three children ages 11, 9 and 7, she carefully chooses her words.

"It's being on the edge and difficult for any mom," she said. "I can't convey to them what I am feeling, I can't show fear, I can't fall apart because I need to be strong."

Hancock, though, said she has no regrets in becoming a soldier and joining the aviation company. She is the only mother who deployed with the unit earlier this year.

"I am so proud to be serving my unit. This is a group of good people who all look out for each other," Hancock explained. "I don't feel too differently being a mother because I sense the that fathers go through the same things ... anxiety, fear, missing out on special dates."

Difficult staying back

1st Sgt. Harry Schroeder of the 593rd Transportation Company, which deployed last summer to Afghanistan, experienced "the other side" when his wife, Helena, deployed with the 137th Military Police Detachment to Northern Afghanistan from April 2010 to April 2011.

"It was difficult to be the family member left behind. I had deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007 and realized during her deployment that it is much harder to be the one left behind than it is to be the one deployed."

As the transportation company's senior enlisted soldier, he ensures that both male and female soldiers with children at home have access to any assistance if they need it. Schroeder speaks from first-hand experience. He and Helena have been separated through three deployments.

"When you are the one that deploys, everything is new," Schroeder said. "You go to a mobilization site and have training that you must focus on every day, and then when you get to the theater, you are in a new place with a mission to do so that becomes your focus.

"When you are the one left behind, you find yourself in the exact same place, dealing with the same issues, doing the same routine things that you always do at home but your partner in life isn't there anymore. That is a very difficult thing to do - try and live your life the same without that person you share your life with being there."

Convoy truck driver

Spc. Angela Palmer of Sparks may have one of the most interesting, yet dangerous jobs in a war zone.

She drives one of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPS) when the 593rd TC runs a convoy outside the gates of Camp Phoenix and into the Kabul region. When Palmer climbs aboard one of the heavily armored MRAPs, her focus then zeroes in on the mission to take either passengers and/or supplies to another base.

"When I am on the road, I set all other (personal life) to the other side," Palmer said. "I am doing my mission, focused on my mission."

The 30-year-old mother of one wanted to deploy with the 593rd TC and do her part in serving her country. Before returning to Nevada six years ago, she became used to the military life since her husband belonged to the 101st Airborne and was also deployed but to Iraq.

"I figured it was my turn since my daughter is now old enough," said Palmer. "My husband has been in the military, and he understands what I am going through and what he needs to do."

Palmer said her husband is watching her 7-year-old daughter and feels comfortable with the arrangement.

"My husband is an excellent father, and they have the home taken care of," Palmer said. "We Skype, and I call her."

Palmer became a little misty eyed, though, in talking about her daughter.

"She knows mommy is away and knows I am in the Army," Palmer said. "She sends me her artwork every week and I post it by my bed."

Confiding with one another

Spc. April Carr of Reno, though she misses her two children, said her anxiety and the thought of being hurt during the deployment have disappeared; on the contrary, Carr's biggest concern is not being home if an accident were to occur there to her children ages 7 and 4.

"My biggest fear is something will happen to them, and I won't be there," Carr said.

Carr, 30, has been in the Nevada Army National Guard since 2009 and chose to deploy with the 593rd TC. She made a choice to come to Afghanistan and become a part of the mission. Her faith in the command has also helped her.

"We have a great chain of command, they help out, ask how the family is doing," she explained. "This deployment is better than I thought it would be. They treat every soldier the same, and the Family Support Group back home is amazing. On the military side, the FSG is there, and our families can fall back on it if needed."

Carr joined the National Guard three years ago when cutbacks occurred at her civilian job, and she saw her hours dwindle to 20 per week.

"I needed to get back on my feet, and I was told about the National Guard," she said. "I needed to find something else."

She attended basic and her advanced trainings and became a transport operator with the 593rd TC. When the company began preparing for its yearlong deployment, she received full-time orders and worked supply, now her current job at Camp Phoenix.

Carr, though, has been on only one convoy.

While in Afghanistan, Carr has replied on her husband and extended family to assist with the two children. Her husband has received help from his mother and sister. Carr said both are amazing women.

"My mother-in-law writes me once a week, telling me the day she spent with them and what they did," Carr added.

The Guard specialist, though, said she has both good and bad days. She starts thinking of the day when her son lost a tooth or when he began second grade.

"It's sad I am missing some things," she added.

When she calls home though, her children always ask Carr when she is coming home. She tries to deflect the question.

"I tell them that we need to avoid those types of conversations because they know it hurts mommy," Carr said.

When Carr finds herself needing a shoulder to lean on, she confides with Sgt. Rhonda Simmons of Reno, who has three children - a 21-year-old son and two adult stepchildren.

"I see a lot of soldiers the same age as my kids," Simmons said. "The young soldiers come to see me and talk."

Although her children are grown, Simmons said she still worries about them, but she is happy they are adults and established. Catching up on the day's news via email has also helped.

"If they were younger, I would worry more," Simmons added. "Younger kids don't communicate as well."

Consequently, soldiers like Carr and others have developed a strong friendship with Simmons and rely on her sage advice. As the oldest enlisted female in the 593rd TC, she extended her enlistment to deploy to Afghanistan. As a dispatcher, she ensures drivers have the proper licenses, but her job keeps her tied to Camp Phoenix.

"I have accomplished what I want to do ... go on a deployment and serve my country," she said.

Staff Sgt. Pamela Commins is another mom who talks regularly with Simmons and Carr.

"We share, we definitely talk ... we talk a lot," said Commins. "Sgt. Simmons has a lot of good advice, good insight. The mothers here are about the same age and have the same interests and kids the same age. That helps for reliance."

Commins is the electronics warfare noncommissioned officer and ensures that all of the electronics on the vehicles that are designed to defeat improvised explosive devices are fully operational. She also works in the communication section working with the radio systems for the 593rd.

The Las Vegas soldier has an 8-year-old child living with the natural father, and a 4-year-old staying with Commins' current husband. Despite her two children remaining home, Commins said the deployment to Afghanistan, though, always comes first.

"The mission here is to stay busy, day to day. Things go by so fast," she added.

Commins first joined the active Army when she lived in Georgia. After leaving the Army, she moved to Las Vegas to attend culinary school, wanting to start her own pastry business. Once in Las Vegas, though, Commins wanted to return to military duty so she joined the Nevada Army National Guard almost five years ago, going first to the cavalry regiment then to a reception unit. She volunteered to go on the deployment with the 593rd.

Commins is not afraid of her time spent in Afghanistan. Her brother deployed to Iraq and had both a brother-in-law and sister-in-law sent to Afghanistan.

As the holidays approach, Commins said the next few weeks may be more difficult.

"My 4-year-old wondered what mom is doing for a tree."

Commins smiled.

While describing herself as a very involved mother, Commins said living halfway around the world has been different.

"I am a very involved mom. Not seeing them laugh or smile, I'm missing out on their ventures," she said. "I look forward to the weekly Skype calls and letters."

Yet, that tinge of melancholiness sets in from time to time.

"Last night I thumbed through some old photos on Facebook," she described. "I was getting a little homesick."

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Dec 25, 2012 11:29PM Published Dec 25, 2012 11:27PM Copyright 2012 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.