Thanksgiving brings mixed emotions for military families

Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Though Airman 1st Class James "Matthew" Spreter will be far from home this Thursday, his mother, Paula, is giving thanks that he'll be on a military base in Germany and not in Baghdad, where he spent the last seven months.

When Matthew left Baghdad about two weeks ago, Paula Spreter let out a breath she has been holding since April.

"I had been - I don't know if you could describe it as clenched - I was holding on so tight for the whole year, and then when I knew he was out, I just slept for the whole day," said Spreter, who works in the state budget office.

Matthew has worn a uniform since he was 13, first with the Civil Air Patrol Cadets Program and then at the Alaska Military Youth Academy at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. Spreter sent her son to the military academy because he wasn't making it at Juneau-Douglas High School.

"He was getting into trouble. But the programs that Alaska offered for kids that were outside the mainstream were great and really saved him," she said.

Matthew, now 20, earned a high school diploma at the academy, graduating when he was 16. He enlisted in the Air Force two weeks after his 17th birthday, joining the branch's Special Operations Command.

Spreter said Alaska youths were in demand with Special Operations because of their experience with survival skills.

"The Alaska kids were already trained and independent. They were able to do things and think on their own and make decisions, whereas a lot of kids from the Lower 48 had never played outside ... in a lot of cases, when they camp in a tent, it's their first time," she said.

Matthew landed in Mannheim last January expecting to serve a tour in Germany, only to be handed desert gear and sent to intensive training for the Middle East. He arrived in Kuwait in February and moved into Baghdad in April.

He stayed there almost an entire year without leave, volunteering to give his leave to soldiers who had children so they could visit their families.

Matthew has kept in touch with his mother frequently through e-mail, but hasn't told her much. The details he has shared have been carefully selected so as not to worry her.

"There's a pizza parlor in downtown Baghdad where they were going and buying pizza and hanging out, and 'That was cool, Mom,' " Spreter said, as an example of her son's messages.

Matthew told his mother the palace his unit was camped out in had a pond stocked with fish, so she sent him a telescopic fishing pole. Another care package included some golf clubs and balls, and the soldiers used the back of the palace as a driving range.

Another Juneau soldier spent a couple of weeks here with his family this month and may be back for Thanksgiving, according to his father.

Pvt. Patrick Wheaton, 22, surprised some family members when he came home on leave earlier this month, said his father, Harvey. The relatives who knew he was coming didn't tell his father, who saw him at a family dinner at Bullwinkle's Pizza Parlor and didn't recognize him at first. Harvey Wheaton said Patrick came home a changed man.

"He's not the same individual he was when he left for boot camp. He's seen a lot of turmoil and killing and stuff like that over there. There were a lot of things he wouldn't open up about," Wheaton said.

Two days before Patrick returned to Baghdad, his grandfather had a heart attack. Harvey Wheaton has been trying to get his son home on family emergency leave through the Red Cross, which gets a message to a soldier's commanding officer, who then decides whether to release the soldier.

Wheaton said the request was approved, but it had not made its way to Patrick, who was on a truck en route to Baghdad.

"I'm praying on a stack of Bibles he can come home for Thanksgiving," Wheaton said.

• Masha Herbst can be reached at

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