By Carla McKeown
Just days after graduating from Graham High School, Justin Long-Garcia left home to start his stint in the U.S. Army, leaving behind his parents, Christy and Omar Garcia, and two younger sisters, Amanda and Mariah. It was June 2006, and Justin was headed off for the experience of a lifetime.
But Christy had a different perspective, that of a mother of a soldier.
“I didn’t see my baby for nine weeks,” she says now, looking back on that time. “I got a letter to let me know he got there safely, but I didn’t see him until the end of basic training in South Carolina.
“And, when I did see him, it was a huge transformation,” says Christy, whose dad, brothers, uncles and nephew have served or are serving in the military. “He was so tall, so put together. I could tell those weeks were life-changing for him.”
Justin joined the Army during his senior year of high school under the delayed entry program, encouraged by the benefits, including the GI Bill’s college program. The next eight years would take him to Alaska, Colorado, Iraq and Afghanistan as he trained and participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Back home, Christy got by on occasional letters, sporadic phone calls and news reports. While the letters were cherished and the phone calls eagerly awaited, news reports typically brought stress. Justin was a mechanic in the Army, but he also served in other capacities, including as a .50-cal gunner, a member of a special security team and a guard for prisoners.
“It was very emotional for me, for the whole family,” Christy says, blinking back the tears even now, eight years later. “Especially the first two years he was gone, it was a big adjustment for me. He was my first-born, the first one I let out of the house. You really don’t understand it till your baby is out there. I wondered what he was going to eat, where he was sleeping…I worried about him.”
Christy says she received a few letters from Justin, but it was the phone calls that kept her going. The calls came at all hours of the day and night, because of the differences in the time zones and when he could get a secure line to call on.
In addition to the support of her family, Christy also relied on her friends and co-workers to help keep her calm during the most stressful times.
“As a parent, the uncertainty is the hardest part,” she says. “It affected me at work, as well as at home. Thank God I work for a family-oriented company. No matter what, (co-workers) Patty (Pardue) and Linda (McDougal) made sure I got his calls when he called during work hours.”
Justin’s absence was especially noticeable at holidays and family celebrations, she says. The first holiday he got to be at home was Christmastime six weeks into his Iraq deployment. Justin and his sister, Amanda, arranged to surprise Christy, who didn’t know he was coming home for R&R.
“That first time he came home, it was difficult for me,” Christy says. “I didn’t want to let him leave the house again.”
Last year, Justin decided not to reenlist and received an honorable discharge from the Army. He’s now studying mechanical engineering at Texas State University and working as a diesel mechanic.
In talking with Justin recently, Christy asked her son about his experiences. She doesn’t seem surprised by his response: “He said, ‘If I had to do it again, I would. I would do a few things differently, but I would do it again.’”
Looking back, she says there were good and bad sides to being the mother of a soldier, but she is proud of Justin and does not regret his military service.
“I’ve seen him grow into a man,” she says. “But, I’m just one of many mamas with these experiences.”
(This story was originally published in The Graham Leader newspaper on Nov. 9, 2014)