For reservists, Christmas last chance to be with families before deployment
Sgt. 1st Class Suzanne Middleton knows what she’s getting for Christmas — a tattered piece of cloth printed with faded lions that, 19 years ago, was a new baby blanket.
Middleton will pack the present — the blanket her daughter clung to from her toddler years and kept into her college years — also with her fatigues when her Army Reserve unit mobilizes two days after Christmas.
“She’s never given it to anyone. So it’ll be real special for me,” said Middleton, a middle-school reading coach from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “She wanted me to know she would be there, no matter where I was.”
Middleton is among 150 citizen-soldiers of the 724th Military Police Battalion leaving their families and day jobs to report to Fort Dix, N.J. Their destination from there, domestic or overseas, remains unknown.
With the full-time military focused on Afghanistan and a possible war with Iraq, part-time Reserve and National Guard units across the nation face post-Christmas deployments. For them, the holidays are bittersweet, a last chance to be with family for a while.
“Obviously, it’s something we try to avoid. We look at a window around the holidays to try and alleviate the level of discomfort for the families and reservists,” said Joseph Hanley, public affairs director for the Army Reserve. “With the activity in Afghanistan and that part of the world, there’s a sense of increased urgency.”
Units mobilizing include the Kentucky National Guard’s 223rd Military Police Company, which will depart for Fort Dix right after Christmas. The Army Reserve’s 427th Medical Battalion, Logistics from Forest Park, Ga., has a farewell ceremony scheduled Jan. 5. The 787th Combat Support Battalion, a Reserve unit in Dothan, Ala., mobilizes Jan. 6.
Two Oklahoma National Guard units preparing for a six-month deployment next month to Kuwait and Egypt faced spending their Christmas leave 750 miles away from home at Fort Carson, Colo., where they’ve been training since October.
Then Wal-Mart stepped in as their Santa chauffeur, chartering 17 buses to drive the 800 guardsmen to their homes in seven Oklahoma cities, where they arrived Saturday.
“For the morale of the troops, being able to be home with their families for Christmas is wonderful. In the middle of training, sometimes troops don’t get to go home,” said Maj. Eric Bloom, public affairs officer for Task Force 1-180 of the Oklahoma National Guard.
For Bloom, a corporate video producer, it’s a chance to spend the first Christmas with his 3-month-old daughter, Erica, who was born two weeks before he left for Colorado.
Without the buses, Bloom said, he and some of the troops likely would have rented cars to drive home. “It’s much safer for the troops this way,” he said.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark. “We wanted to honor those men and women who maintain peace on earth, literally.”
For other reservists and their families, the holidays marked an unexpected homecoming rather than a point of departure.
Last week, Terry Fennel of Sylvania, Ga., got a surprise call from her son, Senior Airman Wesley Fennel of the 224th Joint Communications Support Squadron of the Georgia Air National Guard. Overseas as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, he had packed his bags and was flying home the next day.
“I wasn’t expecting to be home, that’s for sure. It’s indescribable. I’m a very happy man,” Fennel, 19, said Thursday after stepping off a C-130 airplane to greet his mother, aunt and grandmother.
He puckishly claimed he’d won his trip home in a poker game with his commanding officer.
“This is the best Christmas present we’ve ever gotten,” his mother said. “But we don’t have anything for him. We have to go shopping now.”
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