A soldier's story

A Columbia teen writes about her brother’s deployment.
Friday, December 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Mariah Miranda, a seventh- grader at Smithton Middle School, won the Columbia Public Library’s teen short-story contest.



When Joe Uray’s deployment date was pushed back to Oct. 16, his mother, Janel Miranda of Columbia, felt something in her gut tell her, “I have to go. I have to see him one more time.”

It was a 12-hour drive to Joe’s training camp in Camp Shelby, Miss., and her daughter, Mariah, had school the following Monday — but Janel was prepared to make that last-minute road trip.

They stayed home instead.

“Ultimately, I didn’t want to make him lose his focus,” Janel said. “He had a very military mind-set, and I didn’t want him to think, ‘Mommy can’t get a grip.’”

The trip that never happened, however, served as the topic for Mariah’s first-place-winning story in the Columbia Public Library’s teen short-story writing contest, awarded in November.

A seventh-grader at Smithton Middle School, Mariah wrote “My Brother, My Hero” in a couple of days just before the Oct. 28 deadline, in time sandwiched between play performances, homework and guitar practice. It’s her imagined account of what would have happened if she and her mother had made the frantic trip to see her brother.

“I always had that kind of image of what it would have been like if we went down there,” Mariah said. “I was finally acknowledging how I felt about him leaving.”

But Mariah’s not sure whether truth would have been better than fiction. “I think it’s a kind of tie,” she said. “My mom would have been reassured if we’d seen him, but we wouldn’t want Joe to worry so much so he can concentrate on what he’s doing in Iraq.”

Uray, 23, nicknamed himself “G.I. Joe” by age 5 and began collecting World War II books by age 9, his mother said. He was also his little sister’s role model growing up, the one who stayed strong every time the family moved to a new town every few years.

“He was always a leader and always confident,” Mariah said. “He would cheer up our mom when we’d move to a new place and say, ‘We can do it, we can do it.’”

When Uray turned 17 and the family was living in Peoria, Ill., he began asking his mother to let him sign up for an early enlistment military program. With trepidation, Janel signed the paperwork allowing her son to join the Army.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I knew it was what he wanted,” Janel said. “His senior year of high school was his best year because he had everything planned out.”

The summer before his senior year, Uray completed basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. The following summer he did technical training and throughout college moved toward his goal of becoming an officer, Janel said. He graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in December 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in history and went through officer training from January through May this year. After a colonel called Uray looking for a lieutenant, Uray joined the 3rd Battalion of the 297th Infantry Unit in Alaska’s National Guard.

This past Mother’s Day, Uray broke the news to his mother and sister that he would be deployed.

Since he left, Janel and Mariah have yet to contact Uray directly. They know he is in northern Kuwait, leading his platoon to transport supplies to other units. Janel has sent packages, filled with “anything I would think you’d probably want if you couldn’t go to the store,” and letters, but she’s not sure if he’s received any of it yet.

A military family assistance group in Alaska has served as a medium between the Mirandas and Uray’s unit abroad. They also provide emotional support for worried mothers such as Janel.

“It’s important to talk about your child and not forget them when they’re gone, as you would after a death,” Janel said. “The family assistance people have been very patient and helpful.”

Mariah, on the other hand, had voiced few emotions before writing her story.

“She just stays focused on her work because I was emoting enough for both of us,” Janel said. She encouraged Mariah to write about the experience for the contest to help process her emotions therapeutically.

Mariah kept a stoic front because she wanted to help her mother, she said.

“I didn’t know what to say out loud about how I felt,” Mariah said. “I wanted to try to be there for her and not be a pain. If she needs me to comfort her, I can do that.”

Mariah said she plans to continue writing and thinks she would like to do it as a career.

“Now that I’ve won a contest, I don’t really have to think about it (when I’m writing), and I’ve grown to really like it,” she said.

Hollis Stolz, a children’s librarian at the Columbia Public Library, said there were 15 entries in the contest targeted to 13- to 16-year-olds. The stories, limited to fewer than 1,000 words, were voted on based on their originality and creativity.

Providing young people an opportunity to write freely, Stolz said, “allows them a chance to express themselves without limitations and fosters their creativity and expression. ... Hopefully they’ll dream of writing books that one day end up on the library shelf.”

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