Holiday duty in Iraq is felt at home

Mid-Missourians do what they can to cope with the absence of family and friends.
Thursday, December 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:34 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 26, 2008

This Christmas, Centralia’s Jason Blakemore will not take the presence of his family for granted. Unlike many of his comrades still in Iraq, Blakemore, of the 101st Airborne Division, will get to spend the Christmas holiday with his family, possibly watching the movie “Christmas Vacation.”

According to Blakemore, being away from his family was harder on them than it was on him.

“They wondered, ‘What’s he doing today? Where is he going tomorrow?’ I was in Iraq. I knew what they were doing here, and I knew what I was doing in Iraq.”

This holiday season, about 100,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq. As recently as April, Blakemore was one of them.

Blakemore returned to the United States with shrapnel wounds after spending March 6 to April 14 in Iraq. While Blakemore and three others were resting outside a building being searched for weapons and explosives, a grenade was thrown over a wall.

One shrapnel piece from the grenade hit an artery and collapsed Blakemore’s right lung. On May 12, he received a Purple Heart medal in a ceremony at Moberly Municipal Auditorium for his injuries.

“I would have rather not been injured,” Blakemore said. “If I had to pick, I would have picked to come back with my comrades; that’s what we said we would do.”

Blakemore was discharged from the Army on Dec. 10., and will enroll in Columbia College on Jan. 12.

Billy Nelson

On Christmas Eve, Douglass High School graduate Billy Nelson, of the 82nd Airborne Division, got off work at 10 a.m. and spent the rest of the day relaxing. The first Christmas away from home was the hardest for Nelson, 22, who has spent the past three Christmases with the Army.

Although his team was not mobilized, Nelson was on call at Fort Bragg, N.C., to go to Afghanistan during Christmas 2001. He said he worried whether or when he would be deployed and how his family would cope.

“All you can do is suck it up and drive on,” Nelson said. “You can’t think about them (your family) because if you do, you’re going to miss them. Our job is tough enough as it is. You’ve got work stress, and then if you start worrying about your family. ... You can’t do it. That’s why we spend so much time with our comrades. It’s our own little family.”

Nelson enlisted in the Army in March 2001 after leaving Missouri Valley College. On March 13, he was deployed to Iraq. He returned to the U.S. on Sept. 4 after being injured in a bomb attack just an hour before his 22nd birthday. Nelson was doing Baghdad traffic control when a man-made bomb exploded about 10 feet away from him on the side of a road. Nelson injured his right arm and received a Purple Heart for his injuries in October.

James Murata

Columbia’s James Murata, 18, loves beef jerky and Big Red gum.

In November, Murata’s sister, Christi Hodill, 23, and mother, Leigh Stonner, sent a box packed with jerky and gum, as well as Christmas ornaments and lights, to Camp Anaconda in Iraq.

After receiving the package, James, of the 1011th Quarter Master Company, decorated his bunk with lights and put ornaments around the truck in which he delivers purified water.

“He and my other little brother would always play video games really late Christmas Eve night,” Hodill said. “On Christmas morning, my little cousin would wake us up at 7 a.m. James would always make him fight and really work to get him out of bed.”

Although celebrating Christmas without her baby brother will be hard for Hodill, she worries about their mother.

“I keep her company so she doesn’t get lonely, and I encourage her to get out and not sit at home and worry about him,” Hodill said. “I check up on her and make sure she’s not wallowing. I make sure she still lives her life.”

In October 2002, at the age of 17, Murata enlisted in the Army Reserves, wanting to earn money for college. In May, he was sent to Iraq.

“It’s really hard over the holidays because the rest of the family is together,” Hodill said.

Michael Fresenburg

Carol Fresenburg hands out addressed, stamped envelopes to anybody who knows her son, Rock Bridge High School graduate Michael Fresenburg, 19, of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“If we’re talking about Michael and they ask about his address, I just hand them the envelope and say, ‘Here,’ ” Fresenburg said. “It’s mostly to keep his mind off of what he’s doing.”

Fresenburg has not seen her son since the last week of February. She and her husband, Brad, spent their last day with Michael fishing in Bennett Springs. In March, Michael was deployed to Iraq.

After Michael survived an attack on his Humvee on Oct. 8, Fresenburg has faith that the prayers offered by family and friends are protecting her son.

“I can’t do anything about it, and as a mom it’s hard not to be able to do anything for your child,” Fresenburg said. “It makes me feel better to know something higher is taking care of him.”

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