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Capt. Dad’s in Iraq

Citizen Staff Writer



For weeks after Capt. Christopher D. Johnson shipped out to Iraq from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, his now-26-month-old daughter Aleksia refused to talk with him when he called or even look at his picture.

She was angry after he left in September, said the child’s mother, Nicky Johnson, 37. “She would just push the phone away.”

Recently, the 40-year-old operations officer for the 355th Security Forces Squadron sent more photos of himself near Camp Bucca, Iraq, the mother said. “Aleksia picked up one of them, kissed it and said, ‘Dah-dah.’

“It was a sudden change. Maybe she forgave him for leaving,” she said.

That helps both her mother and father cope with being apart, especially during the holidays.

5{ home, Christmas for us would begin at Thanksgiving with lots of decorating,” Johnson said. “We would decorate the tree on the day of the Army-Navy game. On Christmas Day, Chris would make fresh-squeezed orange juice, and I would make crêpes.”

But this year, there will be no Christmas at the couple’s home in base housing, she said as Christmas music played on a clock radio in the kitchen. “We have chosen not to celebrate.”

Aleksia will get gifts, she said, nodding toward stuffed toys in a corner of the living room. Chris’ unit of 109 members, including 40 from D-M, plans a small celebration over there.

The 40 are among more than 1,000 D-M personnel who are separated from their families. Most are in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I will go to church on Christmas Day. For us, it is Christ’s birthday,” she said. “My friends and my church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal, do a lot for me. My neighbors are the most giving and caring people I can imagine.”

Though separated from her husband of three years, Johnson remains resolute; she will not pity herself.

“I don’t ever feel sorry for myself. I am so proud of him. He is a man of integrity, and he is a man who loves his job. It’s just that no matter how independent you are, there is nothing that can prepare you for being apart like this.

“And his job is very dangerous,” she said, blotting tears at the corners of her eyes.

The fear of what could happen often overcomes her.

“Thinking they could come to my door is very difficult,” she said of the officers who inform family members of a service person’s injury or death. “That scares me the most. Sometimes that makes me cry. I always keep doors and window shades open so I can see them coming.”

Those thoughts are common among spouses of deployed troops, said Margaret Burrell, 23. Her husband, Senior Airman Marcus Burrell, 24, also is in Iraq.

“I worry every day. I don’t want to watch the news, but I have to,” said Burrell, who, like Marcus, graduated from Cholla High School. Her family lives in Tucson, and she and the couple’s children, Flavia, 2, and Uriah, 2 months, have moved in with her parents.

Marcus came home when Uriah was born prematurely, Burrell said. He calls often and is allowed to talk up to 20 minutes.

On Christmas Eve, Burrell said, she will put toys together, part of her effort to help Santa Claus. Being with her family is a blessing, she said, but sometimes she feels as if she were the only one with a family member missing.

“And Flavia sometimes says, ‘I miss my daddy,’ ” the mother said. “She has a little purse, and she carries his picture around in that.”

Everyone at the base understands the hardship, said Tanya Hawks, a community relations technician for D-M. Counseling and support groups help with the stress of separation.

Financial counseling and even interest-free loans are available to spouses of deployed military personnel, said D-M volunteer financial counselor Jeff Halstead. Families can get help with budgets, credit-card debt and financial emergencies, he said.

“If there is a problem, we can help,” said Senior Master Sgt. Steve Canter, whose duties include acting as a liaison between families and the military. “Anything from repairing a leaky toilet, cutting their grass or getting their car fixed is addressed.”

Canter said he has special empathy for people separated at the holidays. He was sent last year to Iraq, leaving his Tucson family one week before Christmas. He knows the pain families are going through.

Families such as Chris, Nicky and Aleksia Johnson.

“I just want people to understand the sacrifice our troops are making, and I want people to know our troops are glad to do it,” Nicky Johnson said.

“And I want other military members to know they are not alone. I think the public is doing a fantastic job (supporting the troops), but I don’t want them to forget what’s going on over there.”

She won’t, even after her husband returns at the end of March.

“I miss him,” Johnson said. “I miss his smile. I miss the warmth of his hand. He said he was sending me a green frog for Christmas, and if I kiss it enough, maybe it will turn into him.”


For more stories about Christmases past, go to www.tucsoncitizen.com.

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