On holiday, their thoughts are in Iraq

Son spends Thanksgiving as Marine infantryman

November 23, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CRUMPTON -- Everyone will gather here at Ken and Donna Hill's sprawling four-bedroom house in the country, as they always do at Thanksgiving. Donna will cook. Ken will break out the folding chairs and long tables so 20-plus people can sit down to eat in the family room.

But this year, Thanksgiving will be unlike any they've known. This year, their thoughts rarely stray from their youngest, 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Jake Hill, a Marine Corps infantryman who is serving his first combat assignment in Iraq.

For Donna, 49, the annual dinner is an excuse to immerse herself in familiar tasks, an opportunity to keep her mind from drifting, or to keep the stiff upper lip she presents to the world from quivering.

"It's our first year with Jake not at home, but I've got almost 30 people coming for dinner," Donna says. "I'm cooking everything except the sweet potatoes. We're hoping maybe Jake can call us."

The menu includes ham and turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, lima beans, applesauce and cranberry sauce, and a slew of desserts. Donna planned to be up before dawn to start cooking, necessary if she was to have dinner ready by 1 o'clock this afternoon.

Jake's favorites? "All of them, everything, as long as there's a lot of it," his mother says of her 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound son.

"When he was home, I used to have to hide the cheese, or he'd sit down with a block of it and eat the whole thing," she says.

"I worry that he's probably hungry over there all the time," she says. "It's things like that - you just wonder what he's doing, what he's feeling or thinking."

Jake was an energetic first-grader when she and Ken adopted him 13 years ago. He grew up to become a good musician (guitar and drums) and two-sport athlete. A serious lacrosse player, Jake was the starting goalie in his junior and senior years at Queen Anne's High School, where he also played football.

He joined the Marines after graduating in 2005. He left for Iraq in September.

These days, Donna never watches the TV news or looks through the papers. She doesn't need to know the details of the war in Iraq, doesn't have much interest in the debate about U.S. strategy or shifting policy and politics.

"I just don't want to see any of it," she says. "My husband watches everything he can find. I just know my boy is going to come home."

Ken, 40, says he gets more jumpy the longer Jake's tour of duty goes on.

He startles every time the phone rings at home or his cell bleeps at work. A knock at the door sets his heart racing. Ken says he feels an involuntary shiver up his spine every evening as he ends the hourlong commute from his job in Delaware to his rural Eastern Shore neighborhood of expansive Colonial-style homes in northern Queen Anne's County.

As he rounds the corner and catches sight of his driveway, Ken says he can't help but worry: "What if there's a government car out front? What'll I do? You know they aren't there with good news."

"Somebody knocked at the door the other day when I was in the shower," Ken said. "It turned out to be a bunch of sixth-graders from Jake's old middle school. They were dropping off 60 cards and letters they'd made for us to send to him."

With satellite television, Ken keeps tabs on a military channel that reports more in-depth news from Iraq. He checks the Internet first thing every morning and as soon as he gets home from his job as a supervisor with an electric utility company.

On one Web site, he chats and exchanges e-mail with the parents of other Marines. Ken writes his son on a system that delivers hard copies of e-mailed letters to soldiers and Marines.

"I write him every other day, just to tell him what's going on in our lives," Ken says. "It's just something that makes me feel closer to him."

He knows Jake's unit is somewhere southwest of Baghdad. If all goes according to plan, the 3rd Marine Regiment is due to return to its base in Hawaii in the spring. In the meantime, Jake's older siblings, Travis Coleman, 23, and Tina Brown, 26, say they have mixed emotions about the war and the heightened debate about U.S. policy.

Travis doesn't like the idea of the whole family enjoying Thanksgiving while Jake is in a combat zone.

"I know he's very proud of what he's doing over there, but he's ducking bullets while we're here eating turkey," Travis says. "I don't think we should just pull out of there, but at the same time, it's chaos."

Not that any family misgivings would have deterred a resolute Jake from enlisting. His mother, who has a "Marine Mom" license plate holder on her car, hoped his talk about the Army and the Marine Corps would blow over if she kept quiet.

For his part, Ken, who now tends a flagpole in the front yard that flies U.S. and Marine Corps flags, tried to persuade Jake to seek a military job that would train him for a civilian career. That didn't work either.

"He said he wanted to defend the country, and he went straight for the infantry," Ken said. "He said all Marines are riflemen.

"He made up his own mind and we're proud of him."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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