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At War During Season of Peace
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
Soldiers Away for the Holidays Fulfill their Duties, Families Hand their Fears Over to God
While a desire for peace is on the minds and in the hearts of most Americans, it is most powerful among families who have loved ones serving in the military overseas. When they tell their stories, one can fully appreciate the sacrifices made by soldiers and families –– both the extreme and the ordinary –– when topics such as a lack of toilet paper, a desire for zip-lock bags and coffee are mentioned in the same sentence as donating a kidney or experiencing a communications blackout. The images brought to mind are reminiscent of World War II blackouts when windows were covered with blackout material and communication was suspended as protection against air raids.
The war in Iraq is different in many ways from World War II –– the cause, the location and the casualty count. But it has many similarities as well. “You won’t be hearing from me for a while. We’re moving to the north, but I can’t tell you where.” How often have these words been spoken to mothers, fathers, wives and children?
Sergeant Michael Mead, a 22-year-old air crew chief in the Marine Corps, has been in Iraq since July. While this is his fifth Christmas away from home, this year is especially difficult because his father needs a kidney transplant and Michael is trying to qualify as a donor. “In order to be a donor, he has to be tested,” said his mother, Laura Wiktorek, a parishioner of St. James Church in Johnson City. “He had been trying to get a hold of a health care professional at Upstate Medical Center for months in order to get the paperwork started. He finally got through on November 30.” Wiktorek knows that this has caused Michael additional worry while fighting overseas. “I’ve tried to tell him to wait until he returns, but I think it makes him feel better to be trying to do something for his father.”
Wiktorek receives a lot of support from her family and friends who call daily to inquire about Michael and her husband. Her faith also strengthens her. She sets aside time each day to pray the rosary and a novena to St. Jude. She also watches the news constantly and hates to leave the house for fear she’ll miss his call. “I wish he was home,” she said. “I wish they would all come home.”
Eileen Frontera, a teacher at Seton Catholic Central High School and a parishioner of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Binghamton, has a 20-year-old son who is a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Band. Her son, Paul, is currently in Fallujah. Even though he went over as a band member, he is expected to use his Marine skills as a gunner while in a combat zone. “Up until the last major outbreak in Fallujah, he was able to call me every Monday morning,” said Frontera. “His phone calls used to come to me between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. I sleep with the phone on my pillow.” With the outbreak in Fallujah, Frontera didn’t hear from her only child for more than five weeks. “He told me there would be a blackout in communication –– nothing incoming or outgoing,” she said. The blackout was lifted temporarily on Thanksgiving Day and Paul was able to make a brief call home. Frontera survives the uncertainty and fear of her child’s safety by praying daily to God and to St. Michael, the patron saint of soldiers. Her faith has strengthened her. “Father Ceronka does a healing Mass every Monday night,” said Frontera. “I try to attend as often as I can.”
While Frontera admits that the holidays will be very difficult for her, she is grateful and awed by the tremendous support she receives from parish members, co-workers and friends. “My school community is praying for him. The school and the church have been very supportive. Father Caruso put out a giving tree for the troops, especially for Paul and his platoon in Iraq to provide supplies and treats. They are in dire need of toilet paper and coffee,” said Frontera. “One of the first calls I received from him was asking for toilet paper and enough coffee to share with his platoon.”
Christmas Eve Mass will be the toughest part of the holiday. Her son plays the trombone. “He use to play the trombone at St. James Church in Johnson City. Christmas is his favorite holiday and he really liked to play at midnight Mass. It’s going to be very difficult for me this year.”
On Christmas Eve at the Hennessey household, eight stockings will be hung on the fireplace for each child coming home for the holidays. The other four will be shipped to Roberta and Thomas Hennessey’s children who are spread out all over the world. Roberta Hennessey’s 11th child, 24-year-old son Myles, is a First Division Army Infantry specialist stationed in Iraq. The Hennesseys haven’t heard from their son in several weeks. “He told us we wouldn’t hear from him for a while,” said Hennessey. “He was leaving Tekrit. He asked me to let the family know he wouldn’t be e-mailing them for a at least a few weeks.”
Myles Hennessey knew that he wanted to join the army while still in high school, However, his parents convinced him to go to college before enlisting. The day after he graduated from Le Moyne College, Myles enlisted. He’s been in the army for two years and has re-enlisted for another five. “He’s doing what he wants to do,” said Hennessey. “And I feel that God knows what He is doing. There is a reason Myles wanted to be in the military.” That faith in God carries the Hennessey family through their worry and anxiety. “My husband and I go to Mass almost every day. I set aside that time to pray for him.” The Hennesseys receive additional support from their parish, St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus. Myles, a former altar server, receives letters from parish members who have fond memories of him. The Golden Age Club started a letter campaign last year and began communicating with Myles. “He was overwhelmed,” said Hennessey. “Many of the people he didn’t remember, but they would say things in their letters that revived memories for him.”
When the Hennesseys hear from Myles, he asks about their family traditions and whether or not everyone will still take part. “Are you cooking lasagna on Christmas Eve? Are you still serving Christmas tree ice cream?” asks Myles when he contacts his parents from across the world. “He wants to know what I’m cooking and who will be at the house for Christmas,” said Hennessey.
Christmas for the Davis family of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Binghamton will center around their 34-year-old son Spencer, a first sergeant in the army who is leaving for his first combat deployment on Jan. 11. Spencer, who is currently stationed in Savannah, Ga., will welcome his family soon after the holidays so that they can spend time together before he is deployed. After Spencer leaves for combat, his mother, Joan Davis, will remain in Georgia for several months helping her daughter-in-law and grandchildren adjust to life without their husband and father.
Davis said that her faith has sustained her through the worry that is with her daily. “It’s what’s getting all of us through –– just the belief that we surrender to God’s will and that He will keep Spencer and the other soldiers safe and out of harm’s way. That doesn’t mean there isn’t fear,” said Davis. “There is. But we know that we can’t give into that anxiety. We need to hand our fears over to God.”
“We are very trusting in the Lord,” said Larry Hagan, the business manager at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Utica. “We would be foolish not to be.” Hagan’s daughter, Julia, is a staff sergeant in the Air Force. Like her father, she has chosen a military career and has been on three consecutive overseas assignments. Currently, she’s stationed in Turkey after a brief visit home in August. Prior to her assignment in Turkey, Julia spent two years in Japan. “She hasn’t been home with us for Christmas in quite some time,” said Hagan. However, Hagan, who retired from the military after 20 years of service, said that his family spent many Christmases away from loved ones. “We are used to it, but it’s a sacrifice you make when you serve your country.”
All parents interviewed wish for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Iraq and other parts of the world. They, like their soldiers, have made tremendous sacrifices in the name of freedom. “I never knew I raised such a patriotic son,” said Frontera. “He’s on my mind morning, noon and night. It fills me with great pride. I didn’t realize how patriotic he was. At the same time, I didn’t realize how faithful he was. I think his faith carries him through as well.”