Holiday at war

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

On most Thanksgivings, Jeff Heise of Cape Girardeau wakes up extra early to help get the turkey on the table and the house straightened up. Helen, his wife of 17 years, says he likes everything to be picture perfect when the whole family shows up to enjoy the food and fellowship of Thanksgiving.

But this year, Thanksgiving at the Heise household will be far from perfect.

Instead, the husband and father of three will be thousands of miles from home -- leaving an empty chair around the holiday feast that will be only one of the thousands somberly vacated by loved ones who will spend the holidays at war.

"I've had my good moments and my bad moments," said Helen Heise, who works in billing for Blue Cross Blue Shield. "It's going to be rough, but we're very strong-willed people, and we will get through this."

Jeff Heise, a plumber, is also a specialist with the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Army National Guard out of Neosho, Mo., and he is helping rebuild the Baghdad airport. Helen said this will be the first holiday season their family has spent without Jeff.

"During Christmas, he puts the tree up," she said. "I guess this will be the first time I have to do it."

There are countless heart-tugging stories like theirs, of families who have had loved ones activated and sent far from home to Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain as part the war on terrorism.

Barb McKeon has heard those pained relatives' stories first hand. She's a nurse who is the employee counselor at Southeast Missouri Hospital. Starting in January, she organized a family support group that had been meeting regularly but since has waned. With the National Guard's 1140th Engineer Battalion in Cape Girardeau on alert, she plans to get the group active again.

"I think that, as a whole, families are doing very well," she said. "But there's no way to replace that family member at the Thanksgiving table."

McKeon recommends that families offer a prayer of comfort and strength for the loved one who is not there.

"Give each other the support that is needed right now," she said. "It's imperative that families spend that time together. The last thing they should do is spend it alone. I know it sounds hard, but don't dwell on it."

Where children are involved, McKeon endorses downplaying the danger and focusing on the fact that the military is there to help.

"Emphasize that daddy is there to help people," she said. "Also get children involved in writing letters to their parents or painting pictures to send. That will help keep them close to their parent."

McKeon also suggests staying busy, something that Tina Plaskie of Jackson has taken to heart.

Plaskie's husband, John, is an Army reservist with the Cape Girardeau-based 348th Engineer Company, which is also working at Baghdad International Airport. John has been gone since May.

Plaskie has immersed herself in work, taking on the task of the family support group organizer for the unit. She has organized a care package campaign, collecting pens, gum, video tapes, popcorn and cards to send overseas. She is helping organize a Christmas party for military families.

All of her activities offer a distraction, but her husband is always at the front of her thoughts. The holidays, she said, will be hard.

"I talked to him the other night on the phone and he was -- I wouldn't say depressed -- but down because he knows the lights are up at the county park and people's houses will be decorated," Plaskie said. "Everybody's buying turkeys here, but over there they're working 12-hour shifts."

The military is planning to provide a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob for troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. But Plaskie said the holiday is only partly about the food.

"It's more about the family," she said.

The holiday absence is hard on John Plaskie's children too, who were filling care packages Monday.

"It's going to stink," said 13-year-old Kaleb Standridge, one of John Plaskie's two stepsons. "We watch football and then go outside and throw the ball around. Now what are we going to do?"

Plus, Kaleb's natural father is a member of the 1140th National Guard unit put on alert to be activated.

"It's not fair," Kaleb said.

Missed traditions

Cindy Mingus is facing a Thanksgiving without her husband, Paul, a Cape Girardeau Xerox salesman, who is in the same Reserve unit with John Plaskie in Baghdad.

"He always cuts the turkey in a certain way," she said. "He jokingly gives my mom a hard time, teases her. But we're going to talk about him on Thanksgiving in a good way. We're going to laugh about the silly things he does as opposed to 'Oh, we're so sad.'"

Besides, Mingus said she has a lot to be thankful for.

"He's OK," she said. "They are taking precautions to keep him safe. I'm thankful that he'll be back home for Thanksgiving next year."

And the call-ups aren't over, as Sgt. First Class Jeff Falley of Jackson can attest. Falley, who also serves out of the Army Reserve Center in Cape Girardeau, was activated Monday. He will get to spend Thanksgiving with his family, but will leave Friday for an 18-month tour of duty that will likely pull him from his family next Thanksgiving.

"Thanksgiving this year will be extra special for my family," he said, referring to his wife and three children. "I've got to spend as much time with them as possible."

He was still struggling with how to tell his children Monday afternoon. After thinking about the proposition, Falley's voice cracked, only a little.

"I'll just have to sit them down and tell them that daddy's going to have to be gone for awhile."

335-6611, extension 137

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