Zach Lee, Al Johnson, and Josh Weiman are very lucky young men. It doesn’t take long to figure that out. All you have to do is take the time to talk to their moms. Terri Lee, Sharon Johnson, and Joleen Wieman are doing something no government, charity or military unit can do for their sons and the members of their sons’ units: sending love and support by the bucketful to the guys in harm’s way.
Members of the Minnesota National Guard, Josh and Al are stationed in Iraq and Zach will probably be there by the time you read this. For Terri, Joleen and Sharon, this will be their first Christmas without their sons at home. It’s going to be hard, but they’re not taking it lying down.
Terri and her husband Dave live in Zimmerman, Minnesota. Zach, about 21, is one of seven children. He joined the National Guard two years ago (and then told his mom about it). Zach’s wife, Tina, is only 19. Just before Zach deployed to Iraq a couple of days ago, Tina went by herself to see him off because Terri wanted them to have some time alone. Zach had a tough time saying goodbye to his sisters and brothers, and it was hard on them as well. Andy, age 11, idolizes Zach. When Andy found out Zach was going to Iraq, Terri overheard him asking Zach, “Why are you doing this to Mom?” Zach’s answer is etched in Terri’s mind: “Andy, you have to know I’m not doing this to Mom, I’m doing this for Mom, and you have to remember that.” Terri told me, “Andy now says Zach is doing this for all of us,” and plans to go into the military when he’s old enough. (Andy: your mom told me you were thinking about going Air Force. Do it, dude. Aim high.)
Zach is trained as a tank driver, but will probably be in a Humvee patrolling Baghdad. Terri wanted to do something special for her son before he left, so she and a bunch of her friends got together to make a few Christmas pillow cases for the guys who wouldn’t be home for the holiday. A few days later, thirteen women had made 46 pillow cases. A day or two after that, the cases were sent off with boxes full of candy, cookies and Special K bars (Zach’s favorite.) The Lees are gathering their extended family at a resort in northern Minnesota on Christmas day. Zach will be on everyone’s mind.
WHEN SOMEBODY WANTS TO do something to help the troops, the Minnesota Military Moms are all over it. Some are just quietly proud of their sons. Sharon Johnson is not a talker. She just dives in and helps. She’s been a reader of my columns for many months, and quickly volunteered to connect me with other military moms when I asked her for help.
Twenty-four-year-old Al Johnson is Sharon and Bruce Johnson’s oldest son. He joined the National Guard soon after turning 18 in 1998. He’s stationed at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, near Basra. Al is an MP, usually assigned to convoy security duty. There aren’t a lot of comforts over there, but his big advantage is the cell phone. For a little more than a buck a minute, he can call home during off-duty hours and often does. He speaks to his wife, Katy, almost every day and to his parents only a little less often. They often send phone-camera pictures back and forth. They’re a great stress reliever.
The Johnsons are planning a quiet Christmas; services at a nearby cathedral, and then an easygoing day at home. Sharon quoted her husband, Bruce, as saying Christmas will be “just another day” at the Johnsons’. They’re saving Al’s presents for him. Christmas will come to the Johnsons when Al comes home. For Joleen Wieman, Christmas won’t go uncelebrated. She may even slow down for a minute to celebrate.
Interviewing Joleen is not for the faint of pen. By the time you get past the third or fourth answer, your mind’s ear can hear her brain engine revving while you ask the next one. Finish the question, and Joleen pops the clutch and is off down the track. She’s an office supervisor for the Ramsey, Minnesota police department. She and her husband, Dave, have three boys. Josh is the oldest. Tyler is 16, and Kyle is 10. Josh’s wife — Molly — is home with their three-month-old baby. When Joleen isn’t at work or taking care of them, she’s off doing the military mom job.
Joleen says the support she’s getting from people in the community and at work is “absolutely awesome.” She and a couple of other moms raised $1,000 at a garage sale, and used the money to buy things the guys in Iraq say they want. About $500 of it went to instant Gatorade packets, which happen to be the right size to turn a quart canteen of water into an instant source of metabolites which are essential to hydration in the heat of Iraq. She said the VFW was donating prepaid long distance telephone credit cards, which the guys treasure and use often.
Josh is serving past his 6-year enlistment, but according to his mom he’s got a good attitude. He’s doing something he thinks is important, patrolling Baghdad, making contact with the Iraqis. Though he misses Molly and wants to see the baby, he’s not whining about being held on active duty.
MINNESOTA — A VERY BLUE state — must be a very odd place these days. John Kerry won Minnesota in November by three points. Its population isn’t large compared to many states, but about 13,000 Minnesotans are in the National Guard, and many are in Iraq. The support the troops get from their families is incredible. Unfortunately for the younger members of the family, politics sometimes is substituted for the support they should receive from their teachers. Maybe it’s a blue state problem.
The normal pressures of being 16 are enough for Tyler Wieman to have to deal with. He and brother Kyle are worried about Josh. And about themselves, thanks to teachers who are doing their best to scare the hell out of the kids. Tyler’s teachers have been telling him he’s going to be drafted and sent off to war. Their mom is too busy helping to be really outraged about this, but we should do it for her. Any teacher who is scaring kids — especially those with brothers or sisters in harm’s way — should be fired forthwith. Fortunately for Tyler, calls from brother Josh, stationed in Baghdad — and his parents’ effort to set the record straight — are relieving some of that pressure.
The Wiemans’ Christmas will be unusual without Josh, but they’ve made sure his will be as good as it can be. Molly and Josh have a new home, and the family is fixing it up — shelving and tool racks and such — for his return. Joleen is not slowing down for anything else.
The importance of what these moms are doing — matched all across the country by tens of thousands of moms like them — cannot be exaggerated. We look proudly at our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, and the way they bear every burden and make every sacrifice in defense of freedom. Zach Lee, Al Johnson and Josh Wieman are in a bad place at a tough time. That is the fate of every American in Iraq between now and the Iraqi election, and for some time to come. A large part of what sustains them is the support they get — every day by mail, by phone, and on the Internet — from their families back home. Terri, Sharon and Joleen are very proud of their sons. Their sons should be just as proud of them.
To every American military mom at home and overseas, Merry Christmas and God bless you for what you do.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).