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Families reunited in wartime holiday

Marine Cpl. Gerald Madsen, center, reads Christmas cards with his mother, Stephanie, and stepfather, Paul Neis, at their Langley home. - Gayle Saran
Marine Cpl. Gerald Madsen, center, reads Christmas cards with his mother, Stephanie, and stepfather, Paul Neis, at their Langley home.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

For two South Whidbey families, this holiday season is very special as soldiers return home from Iraq — even if only for a little while — to celebrate the New Year with parents and other loved ones.

Patrick McCann and his wife Jennifer Newbauer — both members of the same Army Reserve unit — are spending the holidays with their 2-year-old son, Jaden. They have been separated from him since March 2003 when they both deployed to Iraq.

Another returning soldier, Marine Cpl. Gerald Madsen, 20, is home with his mother and stepfather, Stephanie Neis and Paul Neis of Langley, before he returns to Iraq in January.

Madsen shipped out last spring and spent some time in Kuwait before being sent to Iraq. The South Whidbey High School graduate is matter of fact about his experiences, but his mother said, “It was difficult not knowing what was happening to him.”

“We watched the news everyday and worried. Tears would come out of nowhere,” she said.

Madsen was out of touch for several months until in July he was given a cell phone.

“That became my lifeline to him,” his mother said.

Before that the family depended on mail, and according to Madsen, “Mail delivery is not very dependable. Sometimes it would take several weeks to get a letter from home. Mail was low priority; other supplies are more important,” Madsen said.

Madsen’s supply unit traveled through miles of Iraqi farmland.

“The farmers and their families were doing well ... they weren’t starving and the children looked well cared for,” Madsen said.

Despite this appearance, the children learned to beg and would run out to meet troops with their hands out.

Madsen remembers when one day an older man, an uncle or father, came out of the house and indicated with hand signals “don’t give anything to my kids.”

Madsen said the hot desert weather was a challenge.

“Sometimes the outside temperature would be 120 degrees and with the air conditioning running in the tent we could get it down to 100 degrees. Some days the wind would come from the west blowing sand everywhere, then it would switch and come off the Persian Gulf turning the camp into a sauna,” Madsen said.

Weather alerts came by the low-tech use of displaying colored flags.

“When black flags were flying we stayed inside and didn’t work.”

Madsen will report to Camp Le Jeune, N.C., Jan. 5 for a possible return to Iraq.

Two more returning veterans — Jennifer Newbauer and Patrick McCann — are reunited with their young son this holiday season. Both sergeants in the Army Reserve — McCann is a flight engineer on Chinook helicopters and Newbauer is a helicopter mechanic — the couple’s unit was put on alert status following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“By Christmas 2002 we knew we would be shipping out to Iraq,” Newbauer said.

The couple was activated in January 2003 and sent to Iraq in March.

Married after they met during training in Virginia, as a requirement of service the Army told the couple to have a family plan in case they were both ever activated — that family plan would mean a separation of family, and finding a temporary home for Jaden.

“We were told to have a family plan, Jaden was only a year old and we had to make a decision ... find someone to care for him while we were away,” Newbauer said.

They arranged with close friends in Bellingham to care for Jaden. Being separated from their then one-year-old son was one of the hardest things they had to do. Leaving behind their son was a difficult decision.

“I didn’t like someone else raising our son and being with him for all the changes. At this age they are always learning something new,” McCann said.

In fact by the time the couple returned home — Newbauer in November and McCann in December — Jaden was walking, talking and toilet trained, almost.

“We would telephone him, but I knew I was just a voice on the phone that he didn’t understand I was Dad,” McCann said.

Newbauer said staying busy helped the most.

The down time was the most difficult for the mother and wife. “Missing my son and worrying about Patrick,” Newbauer said.

The couple’s unit consists of 14 Chinooks and supporting personnel.

Danger was never far away.

McCann flew air assaults and troop insertions, “we would land and drop 30 ground troops in an area,” McCann said.

Sitting on the ground for those couple of minutes caused McCann the most anxiety.

“Those Chinooks are huge targets. Once we landed, we had about 60 seconds to drop the ramp and rush the soldiers out the back of the Chinook,” McCann said.

The rules of engagement are changing everyday. Now McCann and the rest of the crew fly only at night.

While he was out on missions, Newbauer could only wait for the helicopters to return to camp.

They did not live together while in Iraq.

McCann bunked with the other flight crew members and Newbauer with mechanics and other support people.

One of McCann’s last missions was to fly forensic scientists and criminal investigators to an area near Tekrit at 1 a.m.

“We knew this was something big ... it wasn’t too hard to figure out that they had captured someone and needed the scientists to help identify the person,” McCann said.

In fact that’s what happened ... Saddam Hussein was pulled out of his hiding place.

McCann is returning to Iraq on Jan. 3 while Newbauer and son Jaden will remain together in their home near Fort Lewis.

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