Holidays bittersweet for 114 families

Dave Shinall

This Christmas will be a bittersweet holiday for Sgt. James Wheeler’s family and more than a hundred other local families.

“Christmas will be kind of a rough time, but it’ll be good,” Wheeler said.

He and 113 other Kentucky National Guardsmen assigned to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Armor Regiment are at Fort Riley, Kan., training for NATO peace support duty in Bosnia.

They’ll leave for Bosnia shortly after Christmas. Last week, that departure was the last thing on Wheeler’s mind. He and three fellow guardsmen rented a car and drove 700 miles to spend Thanksgiving with their families in Bowling Green.

Wheeler enjoyed a large dinner with his family on Thanksgiving that included turkey, deer, ham, potato salad, turnips, green beans, squash, dressing and “about 15 different desserts,” he said.

“We’ll get to come back for Christmas for a few days,” Wheeler said. “After Christmas, we’ll be gone.”

Their mission in Bosnia is scheduled to last until October.

For Wheeler and 14 other guardsmen, the last few months have brought great change. Just over a month ago, they were students at Western.

Now, instead of cramming for finals here, the former civil engineering student and his comrades study for tougher tests.

Their final exams will be patrols through battered villages and shell-cratered countryside where, until seven years ago, ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims killed each other by the thousands.

To get straight A’s, they just have to come home safely.

Wheeler watched NATO peacekeepers on television as they entered Bosnia in December 1995, crossing in tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles from Croatia on a pontoon bridge over the icy Sava River. Back then, he never thought that he would be a peacekeeper there.

“Never in a million years did I imagine that,” he said.

His greatest regret and greatest fear about the mission is leaving his wife behind.

Wheeler and his wife met when they were children and attended Sunday school at First Christian Church in Bowling Green. They began dating at Warren Central High School where they were in the homecoming court two years. They fell in love at Western and were married June 1.

Wheeler’s wife cried as she talked about her husband’s leaving.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “It’s just difficult, him being gone. I know things could be much worse, but it’s still not completely safe over there.”

She earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at Western in May. She hopes to use what she learned to cope with loneliness and stress while Wheeler is away, she said.

Wheeler has eight roommates to keep him company.

“We’re all there to help each other out,” he said. “We’re actually a big family. It’s not just a job.”

Wheeler’s mother looks forward to the usual family Christmas but with a greater sense of purpose this year.

“We’re not going to change a thing, just try to keep everything like we’ve always done it,” his mother said. “You try to be supportive, you know, try to keep his spirits up.”

Wheeler’s father is sad and proud over his son’s helping pull a country back together.

“I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing even though it’s hard to see him gone,” his father said.

Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]