Monday, December 01, 2003

Home for holidays - thenews-messenger.com 

Staff writer

When you're in the shower, take a moment and be thankful for the hot water. Before you sit down to eat a meal, really be thankful that you have that meal.

These are some of the things Marcella Mowel's daughter, Tabitha, told her mother after coming home from serving in Iraq.

"Being in the war or the service really changes a person," Marcella Mowel said just a day after the holiday made for being thankful. "I wasn't sure how much it was going to be.

"She used to love going to the mall. Now, if she goes to the mall, she says, 'We buy all these things we don't need. And there are people starving, people who have no pillow to lay their head on.' She's learned a whole new appreciation for America and what we have."

This holiday season, some military families are rejoicing -- their loved one has returned safe from action in Iraq. Others are thankful to know that, even though their loved ones have to remain on station, they're at least back home in the states. Still others send prayers and thoughts thousands of miles away, looking at a vacant seat at the dinner table and hoping the person they care for is safe.

Port Clinton native Tabitha Mowel, 22, a private in the U.S. Army, returned to her parents Jerald "David" and Marcella Mowel on Aug. 22, having served six months in Iraq. She's back in the states, but she wasn't home for Thanksgiving. Tabitha -- who, while in Iraq, spent most of her time about five to 10 miles from the front line, refueling aircraft and tanks -- is stationed at Hunter Air Field in Savannah, Ga.

The whole family took Tabitha's deployment hard, but her brother, Jeremy, 19, was extremely upset.

"For five weeks, what little sleep he did get was with the TV on," she said. "He wrote her a poem, and she said she read it every day. She put it in her helmet and said that's what would carry her through. She had photos of her grandparents and (of my husband and me) in there, too, to try and keep in touch with reality."

Jeremy's poem:

"When we were small, with guns we used to play.

But now it's not play, it's the real thing, day by day.

I wished you would stay, but in Iraq you now lay,

Following orders, you have to obey.

We weren't close,

But now you are the one I want to see the most.

Find the way home, you know the way.

So we can grow old together someday."

Traditionally, before going to bed, Marcella said she would tell her daughter, "Goodnight Tab. I love you. Sweet dreams." And when Tabitha was in a time zone eight hours away, missiles flying overhead, Marcella stepped out onto the back porch each night.

"Goodnight Tab. I love you. Sweet dreams."

The 1999 Port Clinton High School graduate's family is hoping she'll make it home for Christmas.

"That would be all I need for Christmas, to have my family," Marcella Mowel said. "I don't need anything else."

Fremonter Mark Szymanowski, a private in the U.S. Army, was likely sleeping in an underground concrete bunker while Americans gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table. He's been in Iraq since Sept. 2, and is serving his second deployment. Last time, he was there from Feb. 14 to May 12.

By e-mail, the 22-year-old 2000 St. Joseph Central Catholic grad said the hardest part about being away is knowing that it's hard on his family. And although he's become accustomed to sometimes missing the holidays for service, he misses them, too.

"(What) I probably miss most is my loved ones, and they know who they are, from Fremont to Tennessee," Szymanowski wrote. "I miss the freedom to get a burger or a beer, take a drive, or the possibility of taking leave and going home -- all of these things and many more. It's really hard to think of what I miss the most aside from family -- I don't know if anything can come close (in) importance."

And Szymanowski had a message for readers:

" ... Everyone reading, please support our soldiers regardless of opinion," he wrote. "We joined to defend the USA. We are just doing our job, and we are doing a damn good job."

In Clyde, Michael McElfresh and wife of six years, Tricia, are celebrating a much different holiday season -- Michael came home Nov. 19 after serving nearly 10 months in Iraq. He returned to find his 2-year-old daughter, Grace, had learned to walk, and his 3-year-old son, Casey -- who had had a speech development problem when he left -- could now speak.

"He didn't talk when I left, now he's yelling at the top of his lungs," Michael said. "It's 'Daddy this, Daddy that.' Between Grace being as big as she is and my son being able to say my name and talk to me ... they're such big changes."

McElfresh said he worried about what it would be like to come home to his children.

"Especially with my little girl, I had a lot of fears," the 35-year-old Navy corpsman said. "I didn't know whether she would remember me. I was gone for such a long period of time. I was pretty afraid it was going to be bad -- but everything worked out fine."

And it was things like that that Tricia found difficult. A tight-knit family, Tricia knew seeing how their kids had grown would be hard on Michael. Describing how close they are, Michael said, "If we can't get it done as a family, we don't do it." Tricia called Michael a "very involved dad" and said that while at work, the couple used to talk a couple times a day.

"I felt like I didn't get to tell him anything," Tricia said. "I started making a list to put by the phone for things to tell him when he would call so I wouldn't forget. Sometimes, it would be like two in the morning, so I wanted to make sure I could remember."

The 34-year-old found his absence to be a personal test.

"Emotionally, it was like 'Can I do this?'" she said. "It's not just the bills and the kids and the house and the yard, but I'm really going to miss him. ... But you find out what you're made of and what the people around you are good for -- their true spirit. You find a way to make it work.

"Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It's one more reason to give thanks to God that everything came out OK. I have faith that He knows what He's doing -- it works out."

Contact staff writer Sarah Williams at 419-334-1051 or swilliam@fremont.gannett.com.

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Originally published Monday, December 1, 2003

Home for holidays - thenews-messenger.com


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