Warriors on the home front

“I just keep thinking how you need a village to raise a child. Well, we need a community to take care of these soldiers,” proclaims Tammy Walsh, whose husband, Sgt. Scott Nelson, is a member of Alpha Company of the 391st Engineer Battalion, a unit of the Army Reserve.

The 100-plus soldiers of the Asheville-based company are scheduled for deployment this month in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. A mobilization ceremony for the company — which is expected to be overseas for 18 months to two years — is slated for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 12, at their West Asheville headquarters (224 Louisiana Ave.). A special fund-raising booth will be operating out of the unit office that day.

Although Capt. David Boeke, the company commander, is not at liberty to say exactly where they’re headed (Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Walsh), he notes that their job, as engineers, will be to build things — anything from roads and runways “to ensure our forces are able to move” to ditches and berms to “protect our fighting men and women from any attacks or harm.

“And in this kind of climate of the world, I guess we can probably look forward to some reconstruction projects as well,” he adds.

For the last six months, Walsh and a dozen other local soldiers’ wives have been busy volunteering with the Alpha Company 391st Engineers Family Readiness Group, which works to ensure not only that the soldiers have everything they need before shipping out but also that their families get the support they need while their men are gone. (There are no women serving in this particular unit.)

To date, the group has raised about $5,000 through various fund-raising efforts (such as selling T-shirts, magnets and other items). They’ve also pulled off a successful Christmas party for 300-plus people (including taking care of 60 kids in a makeshift nursery).

But fund-raisers can take you only so far. “We need support from the community,” notes Walsh. “Without it, we won’t be able to accomplish some of the stuff we want to do.”

And that’s where things start to get tricky: Officially, as Army spouses, they’re not allowed to ask, she explains. “We can’t solicit help,” says Walsh. “We have to rely on someone calling us and saying, ‘Can I set up a donation site for you?’ ‘Oh God, yes, thank you!'”

At this writing, four local churches and businesses have volunteered to serve as drop-off sites for donated items (see box). And the fifth-grade class at Avery’s Creek Elementary School in Arden has made collecting items for the unit this year’s service project. A lot of local businesses (including many that employed the soldiers or their family members and friends) have donated goods and services, Walsh reports, though Army rules won’t let her reveal the names of those businesses.

The needs are many and diverse, says Walsh, ranging from “little stuff like toothpaste, gel insoles, flea collars (to put around [the soldiers’] boots because of the sand fleas), [lip balm], throat lozenges” to what she calls “dream items,” such as laptop computers (two have already been donated) and video cameras.

The latter enable “soldiers to tape some video messages for their kids, read them a storybook … and send that footage back,” Walsh explains. “It’s their way to keep in touch and [for the kids] to have Dad there once in a while. Because it’s only going to be Mom here — and that’s rough on the kids, on the wives, and the soldiers who are worrying about what’s going on with their families.”

Walsh understands these issues all too well, having experienced them firsthand early on in the Iraq conflict when her husband was reassigned to a company of the 478th Engineer Battalion out of Kentucky for seven months.

At the time, Walsh was eight weeks pregnant with her son, Eric (now 18 months old); had a toddler in tow (her daughter, Delaney, now 4); and was “very hormonal,” she recalls.

Walsh hasn’t forgotten how hard those seven months were: waiting six to eight weeks for her husband’s letters to arrive (hence the need for laptops, so they can send e-mail), and her daughter crying for her father each night when Walsh put her to bed — not to mention her own isolation.

Because the family-readiness group for that unit was based in Kentucky, there wasn’t much they could do for Walsh and her family, she explains. But this time around, she wants things to be different — both for herself and for the other families in the unit.

“We need more than just [the soldiers’ wives] in all of this,” stresses Walsh. “We need people from the community who want to step up and help these soldiers that are going to be gone — because they’re from Asheville; they drill here. There’s probably three degrees of separation [between the soldiers and] most of the people in Asheville, because everybody in Asheville seems to know everybody else.”

That community support can take many forms. The group needs help picking up items from the drop-off sites and transporting them to the unit’s office, assembling monthly care packages for the troops, providing childcare, assisting families with maintenance chores, organizing special events (such as an upcoming Easter party for all the soldiers’ kids), and writing letters to the troops. “Whatever it’s going to take to keep our guys’ morale high and get them home safely is what we’re looking to do,” notes Walsh.

Boeke, meanwhile, feels it’s important to acknowledge the considerable contributions of the soldiers’ families. “There’s a lot of focus put on the men and women who go off and serve their country,” he points out. “And something that gets lost a lot of times is the folks back here who are picking up the slack or filling the hole that is left behind.

“Those ‘warriors on the home front,’ if you will … are tremendous,” adds Boeke. “And they’re sacrificing so much, as well as the soldiers.”

How you can help

For more information or to get involved, call Walsh at 277-0373 or 280-1085, or Kim Radcliffe at 736-3708. Here is a complete list of the items needed by the soldiers.

At press time, the following sites had agreed to serve as collection points for donations: Oakley Baptist Church (70 Fairview Ave.) and Gashes Creek Baptist Church (308 Gashes Creek Road), both in Asheville; Ecclesia Baptist Church (15 Spivey Lake Drive) and Food Lion (1350 Charlotte Hwy.), both in Fairview.

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