A Guest Column in the Tomahawk Leader:
By Cheryl K. Theiler
Fairbanks, Alaska, mid August, the 172nd Stryker Unit, Fort Wainwright was preparing to deploy to Iraq. Johnny's dad and I, his sister, girlfriend and most importantly, his buddies, who came to say good-bye, were all there.
He had the cable disconnected the day before, stored his truck for the year at the Army facilities and stopped his cell phone service. His buddies were inspecting the equipment and supplies strewn all over the living room floor while Johnny was trying to decide how to pack everything in a small assault pack, duffle bag and the large frame backpack with hydration system; Johnny had grabbed the last one at the PX as he heard the Army issues was, well ... Army issue.
Doug picked up the Kevlar helmet and Johnny showed him how an attachment for the night vision goggles stuck out so he has his men put it on their helmets backwards not to be detected by the enemy when around a corner. Johnny asked me to hand him his armored vest and Jason asked him if he was nuts. Well, I did try to lift it over to him but the weight was overwhelming and Doug came to my rescue. I've read that the average warm weather soldier carries 90 pounds of gear. Johnny was already wearing the digitized camo and Schwarzkopf desert boots.
"Gee," Doug said, "we didn't have all this awesome stuff. Hey, how do you work this?" There were assault gloves and the new towels in dull desert green and sand I picked up for him at Fred Meyers. Jason who is in the Reserves had just gotten orders to deploy to Jabuti, Africa, and was taking a lot of ribbing about that. They all were excitedly talking over one another acting like it was Christmas.
Johnny's dad occasionally forced a smile and his sister, girlfriend and I, just looked on while the boys were busy playing with their toys on the floor. There was no tree and the only ornament was the gold Drill Sergeant trophy Johnny earned at Fort Sill.
He is "over there" now and when we hear from him he tells us not to listen to the news and not to worry and that when they do house-to-house searches in Mosul the Iraqis often want to make them tea or feed them.
I, as his mom, am happy for his young soldiers that 38-year-old SFC Kempen stayed in the Army and is there with them despite having already put his 20 years in. He had air assault training in Honduras, graduated top scout from sniper school, is airborne and most recently spent almost four years as a drill sergeant at Fort Sill, Okla. He is very protective of his men and in spite of already seeing combat they recently told him, "Sarge, we feel safe with you."
Their Iraqi interpreter doubles as their barber and the only payment he will take is American candy for his children. The kids are all over the soldiers and sometimes try to crawl up onto the Stryker vehicles and they use shaving cream to get them off. The soldiers give the kids candy and anything they can think of that would make them happy. He tells me they are returning with stuffed animals to a particularly poor area of Mosul where Iraqi families live in mud huts. At times it must seem a little like Christmas for these Iraqi children.
And no, our Christmas won't be the same without Johnny this year, but we are in this together with many other families, and personally, I am proud we have these stand-up men and women doing this job in the name of freedom.