War, holidays an uneasy mix

Families pray, wait for loved ones to come home

Over there, the winds are high and hard, stirring dust. Here, they rattle magnolias.

There, the summits of the Hindu Kush are brilliant with snow. Here, the Appalachians are still shedding fall’s brilliance.

In Afghanistan, soldiers turn eyes toward the far side of the world, where loved ones wait and worry. In Georgia, spouses and sweethearts and parents look back.

In both places, they pray this holiday season will give that rarest of gifts, peace.

Members of the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade are spending this season in Afghanistan, training Afghan police and performing other security duties in the war on terror. The soldiers began leaving for the Asian nation in February; by June, they numbered about 2,500. They’re scheduled to stay a year, maybe longer.

For some on the homefront, this season is a reminder of 2006, when the 48th deployed to Iraq. Presents remained unopened and Hanukkah candles shone for fewer family members. Others, for the first time, greet these holidays alone.

Trish Wasson, a dental hygienist, knows. Her husband, James, shipped out with other 48th members in April. They spent their one-year wedding anniversary apart.

Wasson, 40, a Savannah Metro police officer in civilian life, has a job to do over there. His wife remains upbeat when he calls on the cell phone, keeps a smile in her voice.

“You have to be,” said Trish Wasson, 41, who sent her husband a 5-inch artificial Christmas tree, complete with twinkling lights. “You can’t let them know how upset you are.”

On the other end of the state, Cleveland resident Tara Tomlinson said nearly the same thing. Trae Tomlinson deployed in April, leaving his 29-year-old wife to take care of their infant daughter, Annaleigh. She’s steeling herself for a Christmas without his touch.

“It’s tough,” said Tara Tomlinson, a nurse. “But you just have to do it.”

Fear, pride

They come from across Georgia, from different backgrounds. They are grandmothers, husbands, wives, sweeties, linked by shared fears and hopes. They’re learning a lesson imparted every generation: It’s easy to love a soldier, but not always easy to love the soldier’s job. That’s especially true this time of year, when families traditionally draw close.

For Brooke Jenkins, the next five weeks will underscore just how hard that lesson can be. Earl Jenkins will miss Christmas, their wedding anniversary, the new year, his birthday, and hers. He was not around for Thanksgiving, either.

A mammogram specialist at a Savannah women’s health clinic, Brooke Jenkins decorated their home for Christmas while Mollie, their shaggy black pooch, watched. She recently mailed her 32-year-old husband a reminder that they’ll celebrate future holidays: a stocking bulging with candy, and a remote-controlled toy helicopter — a little something for the guys to play with, over there.

When he came home earlier this year on a two-week leave, Jenkins bought a special photo frame for her soldier. She keeps it close, so she can read its inscription: My husband, my hero.

“That’s what he is,” she said.

Nancy Scott met her hero 23 years ago, when she first held Robert Scott Jr., her son. She spent every Christmas with that boy, then that man, until his 2006 deployment to Iraq. “He’s my heart and soul,” said Scott, 52, who lives in Brooklet, a little place about 10 miles southeast of Statesboro.

In becoming a soldier, Robert Jr. — “Robbie” — followed his sister. Nineteen-year-old Christina Scott was keen on a military career until a 2001 traffic accident ended her life. The kid brother embraced her memory, and her calling. Seven years ago, still in high school, Robbie joined the Reserve Office Training Corps. Mom watched with a mixture of pride and anxiety.

This year, she tried to impart some Christmas cheer to her child. She mailed him a stocking filled with candy, plus stuff for a soldier facing Afghan winds: lotion and lip balm.

On Christmas Day, Nancy Scott and her husband, Robert Sr., will wait for the phone to ring. It will be a gift.

A private deployment

John Price discovered Jonathan Kellerman, the prolific author of bestselling thrillers. He plowed through the book a buddy in Afghanistan gave him, then turned to his wife. Could she get more?

You bet, said Tiffany Dixon Price. She found a couple of volumes and dispatched them a world away to her 29-year-old soldier.

Tiffany Price knows the routine: She sends him mail, he calls, they mark off the calendar’s days. John Price deployed to Iraq three years ago, but managed to get a two-week leave during that holiday season to come home.

Not this year. He won’t be at their Metter home to participate in the mayhem when 22-month-old Kason and his sister Peyton, 10 months old, open presents.

Two children in diapers? Mom has her own war to wage, but that’s OK. “They keep me busy,” said Tiffany Price, in what may be the understatement of her life.

She is prepared for Christmas Day. Her sister will visit, camera in hand, to take photos for a dad who cannot make it home. They’ll check their watches and calculate what time it is in Afghanistan. They’ll watch the phone.

Then there are those lucky few who greet this season with those they love most.

Mike Duncan stepped off a plane at Hartsfield-Jackson International early last Sunday. By 8:30 a.m. he held his wife, Marie. The Newnan couple had not seen each other since he deployed to Afghanistan this spring.

They deployed, too -- to Blue Ridge, where the couple rented a cabin to celebrate their second wedding anniversary, on Tuesday. He’s 24; she’s 22. They’ll be together until Dec. 29, when duty calls him back.

Marie Duncan has learned to accept the soldier’s life, and that of a soldier’s wife.

“At times [separation] feels like any normal day,” said Marie Duncan. “Other times, it feels like the worst thing in the world.”

The world. When you’re a soldier far from home, nothing is bigger. When you love a soldier, nothing is scarier.

But love transcends time zones and international borders. It banishes fear. For those soldiers, and the folks back home, that is the best gift.