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When your child is in harm's way...

January 14, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

When my father was stationed overseas on the island of Guam during World War II, letters were the only way he could communicate with my mother. Now satellite phones and e-mail make it possible for the folks back home to talk directly to people at the front. But as Lynn Jones found recently, that can be a mixed blessing.

The Keedysville mother was recently talking to her 19-year-old daughter, Kelly Hurlbrink, stationed in Iraq with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, when Kelly said she had to hang up, because of incoming mortar rounds.

And so Jones hung up, and wondered all day whether her daughter would be all right. (She was.)

Because it's hard for those who don't have children in the military to know what they're going through, Jones founded the South Washington County Military Support Group in April. On Jan. 8, I sat with the group at St. James Catholic Church, to hear how a parent copes when an adult child is in harm's way.

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It had not been a good day. A Black Hawk medevac helicopter, clearly marked with a red cross, had crashed after being hit by rocket fire near the town of Fallujah in Iraq.

"I'm just riding down the road listening to talk radio and then they broke in with the news and I about wrecked the truck," Jones said. She learned later that her son and daughter, both stationed in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne, were OK.

Dick and Vicki Kaetzel are luckier. Their 21-year-old son was deployed to Iraq in January of 2003 and returned home in August. Now he's at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where he's awaiting a transfer out west, for training in the desert.

They watched the news when he was overseas, but said they didn't worry too much.

"It wasn't too bad," said Vicki Kaetzel, "because he couldn't tell us where he was."

"We saw a picture of him in The Washington Post when they were on their way to Bhagdad and he had his maps all rolled out," she said, adding that he had made more than 1,000 maps while in Iraq.

But unlike Jones' children, he didn't call much when he was there, because "I guess he didn't want to worry us."

Some of the group members' children are like that, and group members told tales of officers forcing their kids to call home.

"The whole time Ted was over there, he only called once," Dick Kaetzel said.

Jones' son, Kevin Hurlbrink, is like that, she said. He tells her he doesn't have anything to say because one day is just like the next and because he's cut off from what's happening back home, not even knowing whom the Democrats are running for president.

As members of the group tell their stories, the mood rises and falls like an ocean wave and the tears well up as easily as the laughter, often one right after the other.

One minute they're chuckling at a story about Cathy Hutzell's family dog, the next they're comforting Betty Burger, who told of being confronted by a man who said he didn't like the pin she wears declaring her pride in her son in the 101st Airborne Division.

The man told Burger that she ought to take the pin off. He was a Vietnam veteran, he said, and nobody ever said they were proud of him. The group's members reassure Burger it was not something she did, but something still not settled from the man's past.

Members also said that their children have told them that once they saw the poverty in Iraq and how the people had been suppressed by Saddam Hussein, they knew liberating that land was the right thing to do.

"That's what keeps me going. I believe what we're doing is right," said Patty Bolland.

"Most people have no idea what you're dealing with as a parent," Jones said, adding that every time there's a new report of an attack with a mortar or rocket-propelled grenade, members wonder if their child has been hurt.

And so they meet every Thursday to support each other, to talk about who's coming home, who's gotten orders to go elsewhere and to do what they can to support the men and women overseas.

The group collected and sent out more than 10,000 Christmas cards - 6,000 from Boonsboro High School alone - and Jones said they've gotten some very nice thank-you notes from those who got them.

And though not every member can make every meeting, Jones said she expects that their meetings will continue as long as anyone's child is still in the battle zone.

"We'll be here forever, or until we don't need to be here anymore," she said.

As I left the meeting I remembered how I felt when my oldest son went away to college at Frostburg State University and how his mother and I insisted he have a safe car for the 100-mile trip and a cell phone in case of emergencies.

Or how when my youngest son was a little bit late coming home from work at the Food Lion, we both wondered whether we should retrace his route, to see if he'd been in an accident.

Those were small potatoes, really, compared to knowing every day that your children are working in a place where some people would hurt them if they could.

Whatever you think about the war in Iraq, remember it was the nation's elected officials, not the soldiers on the ground, who decided to go. From time to time, we'll use this page to remind you that they're still there, and still need our support.

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