Christmas call-up

Friday, December 26, 2003

Before U.S. Air Force Col. William Robert "Bob" English boarded a plane bound for southern Iraq on Christmas Day, the man who will oversee the medical needs of thousands of soldiers in a war zone made one more phone call to his mom and dad in Cape Girardeau.

It was one more time to reassure them he would come back home -- though he did not know exactly when. And it was one more time to tell them he felt God was with him on the journey, his mother said.

The holidays held mixed emotions for his parents, Bill and Evelyn English. Wednesday was their 59th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day was spent with family and unwrapping gifts.

But then, the time came to say goodbye to Bob.

"I'm not handling this very well," said Evelyn, 81.

Since her husband served in World War II and their other son, Roger English, 56, served in the Vietnam War, you'd think she might have gotten used to deployments by now, Evelyn said. But she's still concerned about the 51-year-old Air Force colonel she refers to as "my baby."

"I've been a veteran's wife and mother for as long as I want to be," she said. "I'm just not as brave as I used to be."

With her husband, Bill, 84, she's relying on faith to deal with the deployment. After entertaining relatives earlier in the day, she and Bill sat together on their sofa Thursday afternoon and looked at a photo of Bob in his uniform and a scrapbook of his military accomplishments.

A sparkling fiber-optic Christmas angel -- a recent gift -- glowed on a living room table.

"It's the only holiday decoration in the apartment," Evelyn said. "I didn't want to put up a tree this year. But that angel will stay out on display until Bob comes home."

They speak highly of the son who graduated from Cape Girardeau's Central High School in 1970, Southeast Missouri State University in 1974 and from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry in 1979.

For the last 21 years, he's served in the U.S. Air Force, most recently as group commander of the medical clinic at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where he supervised a staff of 290 health-care professionals. In 2002, he received a Legion of Merit award, the highest honor that can be earned without combat service, his father said.

It was three weeks ago that Bob told his parents about the deployment during a visit to their apartment. He didn't want to tell them over the phone.

"We're trying to get over the stresses it causes the family," he said. "And I'm trying to spend quality time with them."

Bob lives in Dover with his wife, Mary. Their 25-year-old son, William Benjamin English, lives in Wisconsin. His brother, Roger, lives in Gordonville and is an emergency medical technician with Cape County Private Ambulance.

"It's a great comfort to me that my brother is there to support their needs," Bob said.

Lessons in Arabic

When he arrives in southern Iraq, Col. English will command a land-based military hospital. It's a country his Army veteran father knows well. Bill spent time there during World War II, working with British and Russian forces to search for Nazi sympathizers.

"He tried to give me some language lessons," Bob said of his father. "But I'm not a very good student."

Besides basic numbers and local phrases, Bill taught his son how to say, "Give me a beer" and "Allah be with you all day" in Arabic.

Bill said he also cautioned his son to be wary of the civilians because it would be difficult to tell who was friendly and who was not.

There are differences in how the family will stay in touch this time. When Bill was in the Army, his letters took months to get home. And when Roger served in the Army in Vietnam, some messages took days to reach them. But now, the Englishes will use e-mail to communicate with Bob during the deployment.

"I am very proud of the military service my three men folk have given to our country," Evelyn said. "But I think I feel the same most mothers and wives feel when a loved one is in harm's way. Bob assures me that God is going with him in this deployment and that he will be all right."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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