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A Holiday Party, Triple The Size

National Guard Has A Big Family Turnout This Year With So Many Serving Overseas

December 17, 2006
By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer

Melissa Meadows has had to be resourceful. With her husband, Jon, in Iraq, she's learned to jump-start a car, hook up electrical wires and overcome her fear of heights to string Christmas lights from a tall ladder. The hard part? Waiting.

"Sometimes I cry," she said softly. "I try to save it for when I'm by myself."

The Connecticut National Guard threw its holiday party this year at the Armory in Hartford - the only space large enough to accommodate all the families with loved ones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany this Christmas. In past years, the event was held at a restaurant. But with 970 troops currently deployed from various units - about three times more than in previous years - the Guard needed more room.

Meadows was one of about 400 people who gathered for support and good cheer in a time of uncertainty.

A four-piece band played "Feliz Navidad" from a balcony as children waited eagerly in line to see Santa and open donated gifts. Gov. M. Jodi Rell stopped by to thank the families.

Meadows, who wore a pair of furry reindeer antlers, sat at a table with several other women who also had sons and husbands in the 1048th Transportation Company, busy trucking supplies in Iraq. Some have had to adapt to a new life as a single parent.

This year, Meadows changed professions from nurse to a school bus driver in Waterford, where she lives, so she could be home for her children after school. Before she goes to sleep at night, she writes to her husband about her day and mails him Twizzlers, Slim Jims and pads of drawing paper. If she watches TV news at all, she switches to Fox News. The news somehow seems better, she says. She tries to ease her children's fears. "I let them know daddy's doing a very important job," she said.

A friend sitting nearby, Elizabeth Bradstreet, a school bus driver in Coventry, has a son serving in the same unit. To cope with her fears about the future, Bradstreet prays. "Every time I start to panic, that's what I do," she said. "I can't bring my son home. I can't keep him safe. But maybe somebody else can."

At another table, Tia Lazenberry, a nurse and young mother from Middletown, admired the Polaroid photo just taken of her daughter with Santa. She plans to include it in a scrapbook for her fiancé, Sgt. Erik Allen, who enlisted voluntarily as a mechanic after they ran into money troubles. "He wanted to support his family," she said. "To do that, he left." She wore a heart-shaped necklace he gave her one Valentine's Day.

One mother, Karen Bergquist, a Newtown resident who processes Medicaid claims for the state, lives for e-mail. She tries to write her son early in the morning before work. When she's lucky, he's already online, and they swap instant messages. The distance disappears. "It's almost like you can reach through the computer and grab him," she said.

Her son Carl had one semester of college at Western Connecticut State University when he was called to duty in the 102nd Infantry, then shipped to Afghanistan earlier this year. He's 19 but looks even younger in the photo she brought to the party with a news clipping about him in The Newtown Bee.

For Christmas, she sent him a hand grenade pouch and a sight scope for his gun, what the soldiers call "Gucci gear." She also sent a tiny decorated tree, sprayed with pine scent, and "A Christmas Story" on DVD.

To get through the days, Bergquist said she plans for his return. She bought six tree ornaments at the party etched with the words: "Stand forth 2006." Proceeds will go toward a barbeque homecoming party when her son and his company return this spring.

"I can't wait to hug him," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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