A soldier’s story

Amid peace signs, there are military people living in Southwest, including a family where dad has been sent overseas -- and mom may soon join him

Like many in the military, Southwest resident and National Guard flight nurse JoEllen's straightforward demeanor reflects her training. When asked how she responded to her husband's decision to volunteer for a Middle East mission as war tensions mount, she was succinct.

"I said okay," she said.

JoEllen's short response belies how well the 34-year-old mother of two young children understands the possible consequences for husband Mark's mobilization to Iraq. She knew that her husband's assignment won't stop the National Guard from calling her up, too. And her brother, Ryan -- who just returned from a three-month Middle East mission and moved in to help the family -- might go back soon. (JoEllen asked that the family's last name, and her husband's real first name, not be used because of safety concerns for military family members.)

JoEllen, Mark and Ryan work on the same type of aircraft -- a C130 cargo plane, the workhorse of the armed services. JoEllen is a flight nurse, Mark is a medic and Ryan is a "load master" who deals with the plane's cargo and manages weights and balances with fuel consumption.

JoEllen admits she gets a negative feeling from the "Say No to War with Iraq" signs that pepper many Southwest blocks, yet she respects their patriotism. She's no fan of the rival "Liberate Iraq" signs, either, and spends every day with a best friend who is a self-described "hard-core peacenik." Politics is not a subject they avoid.

The home front

JoEllen met Mark, a firefighter in civilian life, in their Ft. Snelling-based National Guard squadron roughly 15 years ago. They've been married for 10 years. At 43, Mark has reached the highest rank for an enlisted soldier in the Air National Guard, Chief Master Sergeant, and is due to retire. Serving in the Middle East will most likely be his last overseas mission, or "task," before he retires from the Guard.

When the task came up this January requiring a medic, he volunteered.

Ryan, just back from a three-month tour in the Middle East, helps JoEllen with her two boys, ages 8 and 5. Parenting is always logistically difficult, but what makes it even more complicated is that JoEllen works nights -- 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. -- for a private transport firm. She moves patients via helicopter from rural medical facilities to larger facilities.

During her 12-hour shift "if I'm not on a flight at work, then we're allowed to sleep," she said. "Sometimes I get no sleep, and some nights I get a full eight hours. Then I'm into Mom mode when I get home and I get them off to school."

Mark often calls during breakfast time, while he is eating dinner overseas. He calls twice a week; the military gives him 15 minutes of long-distance privileges. JoEllen shares the call with the boys and often tells Mark about the home front's logistics.

"It's the daily grind of the spelling test, making the valentines at the last minute because they moved it up to Wednesday instead of Friday so we quickly had to cut out a bunch of hearts - just the rush of getting stuff done," she said.

With a possible war on the horizon, JoEllen could resign from the National Guard and stay in civilian life. But her parents, who live in South Dakota, are willing to move to Minneapolis to take care of the boys, and staying with the National Guard means something to JoEllen.

"Part of me feels that it may be wrong for the children, but mostly I feel they realize that what we do is important to us and each other," she said. "If service people are willing to be there and make sacrifices -- whether they're hurt by a heart attack or they've been shot -- I've trained all this time to be there to assist them."

Right now, JoEllen's civilian flight-nurse job complements her National Guard responsibilities. A Guard officer, she trains others for in-flight medical care.

"I have the experience and longevity to be positioned as a teacher out there. I'm teaching them how to be smooth and enjoy the job on a mission," said JoEllen.

And it's a necessary job. Only 1 percent of all Aerovac soldiers (trained to transport the injured in flight) are on active duty. That means the remaining 99 percent who know how to fly with the injured are civilians in the National Guard and Reserves.

Southwest and its signs

JoEllen often wears her military uniform out in public, mostly when she picks up her kids from school before weekends at Ft. Snelling. Folks in military dress aren't common in Southwest, and JoEllen says it often surprises her neighbors.

"I would never expect, nor have I gotten, a negative comment," she said. "When I've gone to the park, the children are more respectful. They definitely have ideas about what it means and they are curious by it. And I get a lot of questions from adults, like what do I do and how much time it takes."

Though Mark and JoEllen knew they were moving into an area known for its pacifism, they came here for the same reason most people do: because it's a good place to raise a family. And JoEllen appreciates the diversity of ideas, despite all the antiwar signs.

"I value that each person has a right to their own opinion," she said. "But I do get a negative feeling from the 'Think Pink' signs and the 'Say No to War' signs. Because we are in the Guard doesn't mean we are advocates of war. I support peace, too. There are a ton of those signs. It makes me think that they aren't aware of the people who are sacrificing so much."

That doesn't mean JoEllen is pleased to see the new "Liberate Iraq, Support OUR troops" signs that are popping up -- albeit more sparingly -- in Southwest neighborhoods.

"I think that's quite a statement, 'liberate Iraq.' Does it reflect my sentiments? When I listen to Powell and Bush and what they say are the reasons for going over there, it really hasn't been in those words -- to liberate Iraq. So, it's manipulated the words around. I think what's key is terrorism and trying to address that -- whether stopping [Saddam Hussein] terrorize his own people and creating the liberation of Iraq, or whether it's terrorism against the whole world," she said.

Instead of a sign, JoEllen has an American flag hanging outside her house. She said she's seen many on homes in her neighborhood, but flags have dwindled since Sept. 11.

"When I see the American flag hanging, whether out of an apartment window -- which means it's more effort to put it out there -- or someone's home, that's what I like, because that reflects freedom for all. That means maybe they are for or maybe they are against the war. But the end statement is that they are supporting American ideals. And that's what's key," she said.

Politics and friends

For JoEllen, stopping terrorism and the potential war in Iraq are directly related.

"I admire Bush with how he is handling this. I think he has been a true leader and has been very clear in his objectives. If you look at other presidents, sometimes they are vague and misleading one way or the other. I think he's always been very clear to what his objective is: stopping terrorism, holding people accountable for what they have done," she said.

JoEllen knows a majority of Southwest Minneapolis residents probably disagree with military action in Iraq. She's not unfamiliar that point of view. Each day, she sees her Linden Hills friend Heidi, who opposes the war. JoEllen and Heidi take care of each other's kids; they talk politics when running, screaming, whining and rambunctious kids don't interfere.

"I'm a hard-core peacenik," Heidi said. "I'd have a 'Say No To War in Iraq' sign on my front lawn if I didn't have two boys whose dad is overseas coming over everyday. So, I do other things, like call my congressperson."

Said JoEllen, "We talk a lot. It's always a healthy discussion. It's good so you don't have blinders on. She always makes me challenge my own beliefs."

Heidi respects her friend's principles. "We talked two days ago, and it was my opinion that this war reminds me of the movie 'Wag the Dog,' that this war is distracting us from other issues so nobody knows what is real and what is not. But she's a soldier, she's not the decision-maker. Saddam Hussein is bad, bad man, he's done evil things. There's valid stuff to her points and mine. It's not black-and-white."

Heidi says of Mark and JoEllen, "They work two jobs, and still picked up my kids every day after school when I was pregnant. She's disciplined and dedicated, she has the biggest heart. It's so rare to have a friend that has great virtues, and a sense of humor."

JoEllen says she is used to working in politically diverse environments. She said supporting the President's foreign policy isn't the first objective for most National Guard and servicepeople.

"There are many people [in the military] who I know that aren't supportive of Bush, and then there are those who do. And we all go down to what our mission is -- which is to take care of [American servicepeople], whether they are having a heart attack over there, they've stumbled on something or if they are shot. We just focus on what we are there to do and that is to take care of them," she said.