Saturday, July 05, 2003

Worried moms await the safe return of sons  


Worried moms await the safe return of sons

Friday, July 04, 2003


Army Lt. Christian Fierabend has lost his stepfather since he departed for the battlefields of Iraq. He focuses on next year's wedding plans to keep his morale up.

Army Spc. Gary Cheesman Jr. gets updates through letters and e-mail about his gravely ill father, who awaits a liver transplant that might never come. He depends on photos of the nearly 4-month-old, blue-eyed son he has yet to meet to brighten his days.

Both Ewing born-and-bred soldiers have missed irreplaceable moments in their lives.

On this Fourth of July, while Saddam Hussein's regime has been vanquished and President Bush has declared the end of major fighting, their mothers know all too well that Iraq remains a dangerous place.

They want to feel assured that their sons will get back to living their lives but cannot rest until they leave the Middle East and set foot on American soil.

"I feel they're all in danger, every one of them," said Shirley Lewis, Gary Cheesman's mother. "I'm extremely worried. If I sit, if I look at pictures all over the house, I get upset and I do cry. I try not to think about it, but it's in your every waking moment - is he OK, is he all right?"

Although many among those originally deployed have returned home, the United States is a long way from reducing its presence in Iraq, with 146,000 remaining to hunt down members of Hussein's former regime and keep the peace.

Meanwhile, casualties continue to mount. Since Bush's declaration on May 1, at least 69 U.S. soldiers have died - 26 as the direct result of hostilities, the rest from accidents and other causes. Before that, 138 Americans were killed.

In that time, the telephone has been both a salvation and a source of paralyzing trepidation for Lewis and Carol Fierabend-Houghton, Christian's mother.

Each has depended on its ring, which generally comes between 3 a.m. and dawn, to hear the comforting sounds of her son's voice from half a world away.

But in those disconcerting moments from unconsciousness to wakefulness to actually lifting the handset, each has been wrought with fear of bad news - about their sons or loved ones.

Shirley Lewis' 49-year-old ex-husband, Gary Cheesman Sr., is awaiting a liver transplant he might not live to receive. Every time the phone rings late at night, she's deathly afraid it will be the call saying her ex-husband is being hospitalized for the final time, forcing her to contact the Red Cross to rush their son home on temporary leave to say his goodbyes.

Carol Fierabend-Houghton, a computer teacher at Gregory Elementary School in Trenton, worried that it was the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia calling about the condition of her husband Harry Houghton, Christian's stepfather. Harry died June 8 at age 45, having survived a heart-lung transplant 13 years earlier but never able to get the second lung transplant he needed.

The stress has sapped her, but Fierabend-Houghton never regretted those early-morning calls of reassurance from Christian, which come once every three weeks.

"We only speak maybe five minutes at a time and there's a one-second delay, so we can't have a regular conversation," Fierabend-Houghton said. "One time I asked what town he was in and they cut me off, so I imagine they listen. He's just calling to tell me he's OK, not to worry; and for me to tell him what's going on at home."

Fierabend has coped with the uncertainty of life at war in his own way. Shortly before shipping out from Fort Sill, Okla., he used the occasion of his 24th birthday to get engaged to fiancee Mary McDermott. Their wedding is set for August 2004.

Fierabend-Houghton still has anxiety about her son making it home for his wedding, despite the slowdown of hostilities. Before his death, Harry would plead with her to stop watching CNN and stop reading the newspapers because she would become too upset.

In fact, even the calls and letters sometimes amplified her worries about Fierabend, platoon leader of a field artillery unit. Fierabend said in his last e-mail he was back at his base outside Baghdad on a peacekeeping mission but soon was to head out to the desert for duties he was not permitted to describe.

"He has told me on numerous occasions when he's on the field, they'll take the Humvee and Iraqi people will come up to him asking questions," Fierabend-Houghton said. "Knowing what I've been reading in the papers, on the news, knowing there's actually citizens turning on the military, it worries me.

"But he tells me he's OK. I think sometimes they're told to say that to keep the families from worrying."

The pattern, she said, has been for soldiers to rotate home after six to eight months. She hopes the same will hold true for her son, which would bring him home for Thanksgiving.

Gary Cheesman Jr. has much to look forward to whenever he returns to his base at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Wife Cristin, a fellow member of the 101st Airborne Division, gave birth to their first child, Gary III, on March 7 - one day after Gary Jr.'s 26th birthday and two weeks after he headed for the Middle East.

For better or worse, Shirley Lewis' son does not seem to fear confronting Iraqi citizens. A troublemaking youth in Ewing who has thrived under military discipline, Cheesman has tattoos all over his arm and an American flag on his helmet with a devil in the center, she said.

He shows them off while going into the middle of Mosul to purchase supplies, as shown in a letter to his mother last May.

"I tell them I'm the Jersey devil," he wrote. "It freaks them out. They call me Ali Baba."

Gary, based at a captured helicopter airport, drives a Humvee on his supply missions and, as evidenced by a commendation he cited in an e-mail, took part in countless missions to the front lines. His efforts contributed to the capture of four prisoners and counterintelligence that may have helped the American advance on Karbala and Baghdad, the commendation said.

Cheesman, who is trained to rappel out of helicopters, complains mostly of heat that can reach 130 degrees, says his mother, who now lives in West Amwell. She has told him two fellow soldiers have died from the heat.

But he has promised her he will return home. As with all mothers with children in Iraq, that promise does not mean she can rest.

"I think the major hostilities are over, but you still have the small things and they're just as dangerous," Gary's mother said. "Anybody with a gun is just as dangerous."


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