09/25/07 — A son heads to war

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A son heads to war

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 25, 2007 2:05 PM

DUDLEY -- Shirley Johnson knew.

There was just something in the tone of the voice on the other end of that telephone call, she said.

She admits she had been a little jumpy.

After all, her 20-year-old son, Joseph, had just returned from basic training -- the youngest of her three boys, her "baby."

But Shirley will tell you she never expected the war in Iraq to come home so quickly.

"They asked to speak to Private Johnson. It was a sergeant," she said. "I said, 'Please tell me you're not deploying my son.'"

Joseph left for war within a few days of taking that call from the Army National Guard

And these days, a phone ringing inside the Johnson's home brings hope to the same family it brought to its knees that day.

"I've woken up with a missed call on my phone and just panicked," Shirley said. "Was that him?"

The doubts make it nearly impossible to sleep, she added.

Both Shirley and her husband, Steve, hate to close their eyes.

The darkness, Shirley says, provides a backdrop on which her worst fears come to life.

It is hard to lay awake and wonder.

"I'm terrified. I have cried many nights," Shirley said. "You see all these guys on T.V., they are getting killed. It's hard to sleep because once your eyes are closed, you don't know what is going on."

Joseph does not want it this way -- his parents worried, his brothers cautiously optimistic.

His mother says he would rather be that boy on the Mar Mac ball field or the young man shooting pool at Cameron's Clubhouse.

But there is a job to do.

And his parents are sure that from a base in Baghdad, he remains committed to the fight for a free Iraq -- and coming home.

"He keeps telling me, 'Mama, I'm coming home,'" Shirley said. "I say, 'I know you are, baby.' Really, I'm just so scared."

Steve would not say he is scared.

He knows his son too well, he said.

Joseph is a fighter, someone who would never back down -- not with bullets buzzing over his head or bombs bursting at his feet.

Still, when his father sees another headline about an American death on the front lines, the seemingly constant prayers start up again.

"That's the hardest part. We basically just have to sit back and wait," Steve said. "That can be hard for a parent, especially ones who are watching the news, seeing that an attack just happened in Baghdad. You just sit on your thumbs and wait on pins and needles, asking yourself, 'Was that my kid?'"

He knows most parents of the deployed are "in the same boat."

But that fact does little to hide the pain of knowing his son is in the middle of a war-zone.

And unlike many, Steve knows about the region his son is fighting in.

"They say Sadr City is to Baghdad what Green Acres is to Goldsboro -- even the police don't want to be there," he said. "It's the slums of Baghdad. His primary missions are house raids and combat missions. That is where everybody is getting blown up and killed."

As soon as he finishes talking, Steve looks at his wife, and the two share an emotional moment.

Until now, their pain has been masked by pride -- a "God Bless America" sticker on the home's side-door, ribbon magnets on the back of the family vehicles.

"It's hard having your boy on the other side of the world," Steve said, choking up. "I'm not sure he's ready. I guess he has to be."

So for the next 11-plus months, a father will continue to try to hold his family together -- to keep them strong while his son's name remains a mainstay on prayer lists inside churches from Goldsboro to Mount Olive.

But sleep will not come easy.

And neither will a break from the images playing out in the minds of a Wayne County family waiting for a letter, a call, a homecoming.

"(Joseph) said, 'I'm not scared of someone shooting at me. I can shoot back. It's the unknowns, not knowing where that mortar is going to hit or where that sniper is sitting,'" Steve said. "But he told me, 'I've got to do what I've got to do. Then, I'm coming home.'"