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Three Moms and a War

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A little bit of insight for Mothers Day.

From the London Free Press. Reproduced under the Fair Dealings provisions of the Copyright Act.

Warning: some of you may have a difference of opinion with respect to some of the comments. Remember, please keep it civil- all these women have their sons over seas, and their sons are currently very well armed.

Personally, I would like to see a story like this on fathers day regarding dads whose daughters are off to war. As a father, it would make me proud, and tear me apart with worry.

Three moms and a war
Tomorrow is Mother's Day, a day when most moms expect to hear from their children. For the mothers of soldiers in Afghanistan, whose constant companions are now fear and worry, their thoughts tomorrow will be the same as any other day since their children

Janet Neatby, left, and Susan Hodgins wear yellow ribbons over red as a tribute to their adult children, serving in Afghanistan. (Susan Bradnam, LFP)

This Mother's Day, Roxanne Emery will sip coffee from the cup her little boy once gave her because it says, "I love my Mom."

In the old days, he would make her breakfast in bed and give her a little present.

"We'd do something special like go for a walk in the park. He loved to feed the ducks," she remembers.

This Mother's Day she'll go for a walk herself, maybe to the park, maybe to feed the ducks.

"Then I'll get busy."

Getting busy allows less opportunity to think about her son.

To the rest of us, Cpl. Benjamin Emery is a 25-year-old, capable-looking soldier in the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

To Emery, the corporal is her only child, only family.

"That is my little boy over there," she says. "I carry worry and I carry fear all the time, but I can't let it take over my life, for the quality of my life and for him. If he had to worry about me back here on top of everything else, that takes the focus off his job."

Other mothers might fret tomorrow about their children calling or sending flowers or visiting for dinner.

For Emery and a handful of London moms, their worry focuses on whether their children will make it through the day -- and the days to follow -- unhurt.

"When I hear the word Afghanistan and Canadian soldiers on the news, my stomach does a flip flop," Emery says. "Sometimes I have to stop myself from watching it. When the four soldiers died (April 22) . . . I cannot watch the coffins. I cannot."

Her boy is on his third tour of duty. Born and raised in London, Benjamin Emery went to Banting secondary school. In his last year of high school, he decided to join the army.

"He wanted to have some sort of job where he felt he could make a difference and help people who couldn't help themselves. And some of it was a recognition in himself that he wanted a physical job and one that would get adrenalin pumping. Put all those things together," Emery says with a laugh, "and you end up with army."

In 2000, her son went straight from high school to battle school.

"At the time it seemed like a good decision, but Canada's role in the world, and the world, was a much different place then."

The world and her son's life changed Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists attacked the United States.

"It just struck me, 'Oh my gosh, my son might have to go to war.' "

Three days before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Emery shipped to the Mideast as part of 10-week security detail. He went to Afghanistan in August 2004 for another three months.

After this six-month rotation, which started in January, her son might be able to decline another tour for awhile. But Emery doubts he would.

"The soldiers feel a real commitment to each other. If they don't go, they feel they are letting their fellow soldiers down."

The maturity in her son makes her proud, yet concerned.

"He is much older than a 25-year-old. It is good to see your child becoming a mature individual but you would like him to be carefree and not feel he has all this responsibility."

When he talks to his mom, he holds his emotions in check.

"He has said he has been tested. I know what those words mean."

She has to keep her own emotions in check, too.

At 3 a.m., when the phone calls from her son in Afghanistan come, she keeps everything positive.

"You want the conversations to be positive, silly and trivial."

Beneath the trivial conversation lies a deep understanding between mother and only child.

Always close, the war has made them closer.

"I think we really appreciate each other to a deeper degree now because you do realize that could be taken away at any moment."


If there was anything Janet Neatby could count on, it was that her daughter was headed for a career in the arts.

In high school, Yvonne Neatby acted, helped build sets and worked the lighting for London Community Players performances. She wrote poetry. She consumed books.

So what if she also admired her grandfather, a career soldier who survived a PoW camp after being captured at Dieppe.

"I never would have imagined she would choose a career in the military," Neatby says of Yvonne. "Her first love was drama and theatre."

At 19, Yvonne joined the naval reserves. But she also took a year of English at Carleton University in Ottawa. She resisted joining the regular army because she didn't want to be forced to be posted overseas.

Yet, somehow, about four years ago, she joined the regular army.

And today, Master Cpl. Yvonne Neatby, 33, of Bravo company of 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, is serving in Kandahar.

Since January -- and until August -- Neatby lives every day with worry about her daughter, a clerk in an army dominated by men in a country that has a poor track record with women.

As company clerk, Yvonne Neatby works mainly in the safety of Camp Nathan Smith. Yet she still does guard duty and she still has to check incoming vehicles for explosives and she still has to take rides on deadly Afghanistan roads.

And as clerk, she has come oddly close to death -- two soldiers killed in a vehicle crash in March were from her company. Neatby had worked with each, preparing their wills.

"My daughter has changed completely," her mom says. "From the way she was when she was 16 to now, it is not the same person."

Neatby is proud of her daughter, but as an army brat herself, she can't get around the idea of a woman being a soldier.

"When I see a male soldier, I feel safe and secure because my father was a soldier. It is hard to for me to believe she is a soldier sometimes because she is a woman."

Usually on Mother's Day, Neatby can count on a bouquet of flowers from Yvonne, based in Shiloh, Man.

This year, Neatby is counting on nothing, simply counting out the days.

"It is nerve-wracking."

Mother's Day, she notes, is simply Day 107 of her daughter's tour in Afghanistan.


He might be too young to remember, but the mother of Cpl. Brett Hodgins can recall how and how early his military career began.

"You remember He Man?" Susan Hodgins asks, referring to an action figure of 20 years ago.

"That was always a favourite toy of Brett.

"He would stand up on the top of the slide with his little sword and shout, 'I am He Man, master of the universe.' "

When her son was nine, he almost died from E. coli. His kidneys failed and he spent eight days in intensive care. One day in intensive care he turned to his mother and said, "I am going to be a soldier. "

"He never turned his back on that," Hodgins says.

Just as Brett seemed destined to serve in the army, his mother seems destined to live with that decision through laughter, pride and worry.

Her son, 25, also serves with 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Kandahar. An infantry soldier, he spends more time on patrol than on base.

His mother spends more time awake at night than asleep.

"Sleep comes rarely. You go to bed and sleep for a couple of hours then you wake up and start wondering and worrying. When you look at your watch, you jump a few hours ahead and wonder, what is he doing? Is he back at base safe?"

Her worry has grown over the years. Not long after he turned 20, Hodgins took a tour of duty in Bosnia. By then, 2000, the crisis had long passed and Canadian soldiers there were in full peacekeeping mode.

His platoon in Bihac helped local police, supported a local school.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed that role. By February 2002, Hodgins was in Kandahar in full combat mode under U.S. command.

He spent weeks patrolling in the mountains. One night in April 2002, his platoon was bumped from its training session near Kandahar. Another platoon, set to go back on patrol soon, headed to the range for night training. A U.S. pilot accidentally bombed the training session and killed four Canadian soldiers.

Hodgins didn't find out until long after that her son was supposed to be there.

The rule for moms of soldiers is simple. No news is good news. But when a month goes by without news, "you have to drag that rule out," Hodgins says.

When she does hear about an incident in Afghanistan, she rides a rollercoaster of emotions.

"You just hold your breath and wait and when they announce the names you feel great relief it is not your child. Then you feel the same grief because it is somebody else's child."

Long ago, she got used to the idea of her son being a soldier, a peacemaker. But Afghanistan, that is something else again.

"I never thought I would have to go through this. It sure gives me an appreciation of what mothers and wives went through in the other wars."

Some Canadian soldiers serving overseas -- particularly married ones -- return home to Canada for their three-week leaves.

Hodgins isn't sure she wants her son to do that, not in the middle of a tour of duty in Kandahar.

"I don't know if I could take that. If he came home I don't know if I could let him go back."


Canadian soldiers have taken over the security campaign in Kandahar province in Afghanistan from the Americans. Here's a look at their assignment:

The goal: To get rid of the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida -- responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- on their home turf.

In charge: A Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry battle group has replaced a U.S. task force as the main fighting force in Kandahar, considered the heartland of the Taliban.

Numbers: The Canadian contingent numbers 2,200. Sixteen have been killed since 2002, including four soldiers in a roadside blast on April 22.

The job: The assignment is focused on combat. Three infantry companies from the frontline battle group spend most of their tour in the far reaches of Kandahar province. Canadian patrols roll every day along the dusty rutted roads throughout the rocky hills and mountains where pockets of resistance still fight.