12/24/06 — Home is where her heart is ... even in Iraq

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Home is where her heart is ... even in Iraq

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 24, 2006 2:19 AM

When Lt. Col. Kerri Grimes fires up her truck, she closes her eyes and the hot Iraq desert is transformed into a winter wonderland.

The sound of her 13-year-old daughter Nicole blasting Christmas carols over the speakers brings her home every time, she said.

"I kind of picture having her in the back seat," Kerri said.

For the Pikeville resident and member of the 916th Air Refueling Wing, it's the little things that make spending the holidays at war bearable.

"You think of Christmas more as a state of mind," she said. "That's how you stay close to your family even though you're gone."

Back home in Wayne County, her husband, Bo, and their five children are adapting to their first Christmas without Kerri, too -- each one taking on part of the responsibilities she had shouldered before her deployment.

In her absence, someone else will have to pass out the gifts this year. And then there's the cooking, cleaning, shopping and wrapping.

It has been hard -- and a little sad -- but therapeutic, Bo said.

"She's so present in all those traditions that when she's not here, it's like she is," he said. "The chaos of the season ordinarily is something we lament, but without Kerri home, it has kept everybody so busy and distracted, it's actually been kind of a good thing."

Still, there's little good that comes with knowing your loved one is at war and just how much she misses home. So the Grimes family decided to send little pieces of Christmas to Kirkuk Regional Air Base in care of their hero -- a tin of hot chocolate, a stocking and a miniature tree.

"We had a whole lot of fun back in November going out as a family and getting her things," Bo said. "We got all of that kind of stuff to send to her so she can have her own little party. The kids just loved that. It's a way for them to connect with her."

Kerri has her own ways of staying connected with them, she said -- sending e-mails, looking at family pictures and spending the few moments of downtime she has each day reflecting on the true meaning of the holiday season -- love.

"I don't have the mad rush and the hurry," she said. "All I have are the little things -- the important things. I'm not focused on the traffic and the wrapping and the cleaning ... Now, I can have a nice conversation with my family and appreciate the real meaning of the season."

Christmas morning will still be hard, though. So to pass the time, she'll participate in a 5K-run, church services and maybe watch a home video of her family decorating the tree.

"It's going to be kind of a bonding of people here," Kerri said. "We're all in this together. We're all missing the holidays."

But despite the absence of family and friends during this "special time of year," the resolve she and her fellow airmen have to stay the course and fight for a free Iraq will stay strong, she added.

"Somebody's got to do it," Kerri said. "Most of us here are proud to be doing it. Somebody here described it as our gift to the American people. We'll have Christmas when we get back. It can be on Jan. 16 or it can be on Dec. 25 and it doesn't change what the holiday means."

And Bo and the children will make sure Christmas is waiting for her, he said.

"All the decorations will stay up until she returns home," he said. "We'll probably be the only people in Wayne County with our lights up at the end of January, but we don't mind."

Until then, they will try to stay strong without her during the time of year when her presence means the most.

"Yeah, the kids wish she hadn't had to go, but they understand why she did and are very proud of her," Bo said. "It'll be hard but at least we still have each other."