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Reunited Stryker Families Planning for Extra-Special Holiday

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska, Dec. 15, 2006 – Christmas came early this year for the Skeen family as they celebrated what Joanna Skeen called the best gift she could ever ask for: the safe return of her husband.

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Staff Sgt. Michael Skeen, his wife, Joanna, and daughter, Lillian, have already started celebrating Christmas now that they’re together again after Skeen’s 16-month deployment to Iraq with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Photo by William D. Moss

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Skeen and his fellow 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team soldiers returned to Alaska this month after 16 months in Iraq.

“It’s already Christmas,” said Joanna, whose husband was among the first “Arctic Wolves” delivered to their families and loved ones during the past weeks -- not in sleighs, but in chartered commercial planes. “It’s felt like Christmas morning every day since he’s been home,” she said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

Holding his 18-month-old daughter, Lillian, Staff Sgt. Skeen could barely take his eyes off the strawberry-blonde toddler who was just two months old when he left for Iraq. “Now she’s walking around and talking,” he beamed. “It’s great.”

Skeen was deployed in Iraq last Christmas with Battery A, 4th Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment, which was redesignated yesterday as 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery.

Knowing he’d miss his baby’s first Christmas in 2005, Skeen had squeezed in an early celebration during his rest-and-recuperation leave earlier that month. A highlight, he said, was taking Lillian for her first trip to see Santa Claus, near the family’s log home in (no kidding) North Pole, Alaska.

“Now I’m ready to make up for lost time,” he said. “I’m finally getting to be with my family.”

Another Stryker Brigade soldier, Capt. Jacob Haverstick, is excited about spending Christmas with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Ava, who was born five months after he deployed to Iraq.

If there’s an “up” side to deployments, Haverstick said, it’s that they make people appreciate what they have at home. “Being deployed makes you realize how important family is,” he said. “You realize that you take a lot of things for granted, and how much (family members) mean to you.”

As the holiday approaches, Haverstick is planning a low-key celebration. “We’re staying here and having a quiet Christmas, just us,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Like Haverstick, Ashley McCulloh and her husband, Capt. Timothy McCulloh, are planning a quiet holiday with their 14-month-old son, Brooks.

Ashley went out of her way to fill their house on a snowy, wooded hillside about 10 miles from Fort Wainwright with holiday spirit. She put up a tree and hung red, white and blue bows from the balcony, a big wreath at the door, icicle lights from the roof, and holiday stockings for everyone, including the family dog.

“This is our first Christmas (together) as a family, and we want it to be special,” she said.

But big parties and travel arrangements don’t figure high in the McCullohs’ plans. “I think it’s going to be an intimate Christmas,” she said. “I think everyone here is going to have a very close family Christmas, with not so many big ones.

“Everyone wanted their spouses here for Christmas, and they got it,” she said. “So now we want to just enjoy that we were the lucky ones to get our spouses back, and a lot of people are just staying here.”

While many newly returned soldiers here prepare to celebrate the holiday with new babies, Spc. Ian Helmandollar from the newly redesignated 2nd Brigade, 8th Field Artillery, looks forward to spending it with his new bride.

Helmandollar married his wife, Lori, when he was home for rest-and-recuperation leave in October 2005 and shared last Christmas with her only through e-mails and phone calls.

“Last Christmas, we were on a mission in Mosul,” he recalled. And while the contractor that ran the dining facility there tried to make the holiday meal special, with seasonal tablecloths and sparkling grape juice, Helmandollar said, this year’s celebration will be head and shoulders above it.

“It’s going to feel really different this year, being home,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”

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Related Sites:
172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAshley McCulloh is planning a quiet Christmas so she, her husband, Capt. Timothy McCulloh, and their 14-month-old son, Brooks, can relax and enjoy each other after the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team’s 16-month deployment to Iraq. Photo by William D. Moss   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCapt. Timothy McCulloh, his wife, Ashley, and 14-month-old Brooks pose for a holiday portrait with Santa and Mrs. Claus in North Pole, Alaska, about 14 miles from Fort Wainwright. Courtesy photo  
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