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Event helps families, soldiers stay connected

9/5/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photos are available with this story.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert*

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (UMNS)--Zach turned 14 and made the high school baseball team.

Sami lost her front tooth and is enjoying second grade.

Not exactly breaking news, but those kinds of little milestones in a child's life are what thousands of military moms and dads are missing every day as they serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Zach and Sami's dad is Capt. Ernest P. Jay West, a United Methodist minister serving in Iraq as a U.S. Army chaplain with the 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell Screaming Eagles.

When it was announced that the 101st Airborne Division would continue its duties in Iraq for another six months, West and his commander, Lt. Col. Donald G. Fryc, thought it was time to boost the morale between deployed soldiers and their families.

To recognize and to honor the fact that kids and spouses, parents and friends are missing one another, "Operation Strike Span," a name taken from the regiment's slogan "Strike Fear,"was held on a recent muggy summer day.

"You have the most important job in the army," Col. Jeff Horne told the room full of family members. "You have to keep the family together and things going on here at home. God is looking over your shoulders."

Deployed soldiers' videotaped messages and photos sent back home for the occasion, brought laughter, tears and smiles to the crowd gathered in the recreation hall at Fort Campbell.

West gave the invocation via videotape for the event, and took the opportunity to tell his wife Pam, and Zach and Sami how much he loves and misses them.

Other members of the 2-44 ADA also sent special messages home to their wives and children through videotapes. One dad, holding up his wallet full of family photos, told his kids he shows their pictures to the children in Iraq.

The three members of the 2-44 ADA who have died, Pfc. John Brown, Pfc. Daniel Parker and Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Foley, were honored during the event. Brown and Foley both died during Holy Week; Parker, in an accident just weeks ago. Operation Strike Span was held during the Labor Day weekend because it marks six months since the unit deployed to Iraq.

"We have six months behind us with about six months more to go," says Pam West. She helped plan the event and had hoped Jay would be able to come home to share the time with her.

"In the middle of one of our planning meetings, I heard he wouldn't be coming home," she says. "It was hard to hear it that way, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized having him home for just two weeks would have been hard also."

Pam and the children stay busy. Adjusting to Jay's being so far from home has been hard on all of them, she says.

"Things are just now starting to settle down," she says.

During Operation Strike Span, the "home team" gave certificates of appreciation to those who had sent care packages to the soldiers.

When West was deployed, he sent an invitation to several churches asking them to participate in "Operation Desert Care Package."

"I thought it would be wonderful if we received 50 packages," he says. "I was overwhelmed when I was able to deliver more than 500 care packages to these men and women. This is truly an example of sharing God's love."

Don and Sandy Sanders, members of Calvary United Methodist Church in Keyser, W.Va., where West was pastor for four years before becoming an Army chaplain, traveled to Fort Campbell to accept a certificate on behalf of their church.

"It was hard to lose Jay because we came to love him and his family so much," Sandy says. "But it clear this is where God wants them to be."

Young mothers carried babies and held on to the hands of toddlers as they enjoyed a potluck lunch together. After the lunch, families gathered at different booths to record video messages, write letters, send e-mail messages, take digital photos and sign large paper banners. All of the messages of love will be sent to the unit with soldiers leaving Fort Campbell on their way to Iraq.

"It is hard not having Dad here to talk to," Zach says. "I will be glad when he comes home and we are a whole family again."

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