Today, America honors mothers. Tomorrow, America takes a mother from a Rock Hill third-grader and sends that mother to war.
Nine-year-old Kaliya Gause, an honor student at Old Pointe Elementary School, finished school two weeks earlier than the rest of her schoolmates. On Friday the school gave her a going away party.
Kaliya is shipping out, too – to California to live with her father for about a year.
Her mother is Staff Sgt. Terri Kelly, United States Army, now active duty, soon to be squad leader, Afghanistan.
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“I am going to miss my mom,” Kaliya said, as only a 9-year-old can. “She is my best friend.”
Kelly, a single mother, has for years done what millions of American mothers do – juggle home and work after an amicable split.
But unlike most mothers, she is a full-time soldier.
For seven years, this 33-year-old Winthrop University graduate, from tiny Lake View, near Dillon and the North Carolina state line, has worked at the Rock Hill National Guard armory in a full-time administrative job that helps run the unit and its five area armories with hundreds of mainly part-time soldiers.
But this deployment hit the headquarters – almost all the full-timers who run supply, machine shop, management and motor pool are going to Afghanistan, too, along with combat engineers.
More than 160 soldiers in all are leaving.
“It is my time to go and I am a soldier and I will go,” said Kelly. “Moms have to go, too.”
The stress and anxiety has been most acute the past month or so, as Kelly readies to leave. Each morning and night has been treasured – cooking and doing homework together, the nail polish and the hair braiding and the tears and the joy.
A scrapbook was filled with mementos of daily life that seem so casual – pictures, napkins, receipts, school tests and “A+” grades on spelling quizzes. The things that mean mother and daughter together.
Because all the things single mothers do heroically every day now must be passed on as Kelly readies to go to war where, as a staff sergeant – a noncommissioned officer who any military person will tell you is the backbone of the military – she will be a squad leader.
Shaking with fear
Sgt. Kelly will have eight soldiers reporting to her, depending on her to stay alive in a war that is so filled with peril.
For nine months, Kaliya will wonder and worry about what her mother is doing on the other side of the world. Thanks to Skype Internet video chats, e-mail and cellphones, Kaliya and her mother will talk often.
But it will not be the same as having her mother tuck her in at night, or gently shake her awake in the morning, or going over science and math schoolwork together.
“I’m a little nervous about it,” said Kaliya. “My mom has to go fight in a war.”
Of the 160-plus soldiers being deployed from the 178th Combat Engineers to handle mainly construction duties out in the field, about 15 are women. Most do not have children.
In Afghanistan, female soldiers – mothers or not, wives or not – are tasked to do almost all the same activities as men, said Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin, the ranking enlisted officer for the unit.
These soldiers will be going out into the field – “outside the wire” – to handle construction tasks and route clearance, convoy security and safety.
Going outside the wire in Afghanistan can include anything from building a school or road to clearing a school or road of the worst, nastiest, bombs that are used to kill and maim soldiers.
That is what this war has become – a war of sneak attacks that leave families at home in York County shaking with fear.
‘The most anxious part’
Another full-time soldier with the Rock Hill unit, Staff Sgt. Rolande Sumner, who runs the human resources/administrative section, also is a deploying mother leaving her family behind.
Sumner must leave her 7-year-old daughter, Alicia, and her husband, Jamie. She also leaves a stepson, who lives in Jonesville but visits regularly and is part of the family. Sumner’s mother lives nearby in Charlotte, too.
Alicia will not have to change schools or move, like Kaliya. But both girls will be without a mother for almost a year.
“That’s the most anxious part, because I am a soldier and I am deploying – but I am a mother, too,” Sumner said. “It is not easy, as a mother, leaving behind children.
“I’m energized to do my part for my country. But my little girl is just 7 years old.”
A mother leaving for war does present challenges for families that are different from when a father deploys, said Iris Dickerson of Chester, who served as chaplain for the S.C. 218th Army National Guard brigade deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
Dickerson, recently retired from the guard, left two sons and a husband at home for a year.
“The rest of the family then realizes how much a mother truly does, after she is gone,” Dickerson said. “And as a mother, leaving your family behind to fend for themselves without you to kiss the boo-boos and be the rock, that is very difficult.
“Because mothers do that each and every day for their children.”
And with Kelly, a single mother, the challenges are even tougher.
“A single mother is all things in a home, and the children know that,” Dickerson said. “And then one day that mother is gone, so there will be adjustments.”
Soldiers such as Sumner and Kelly, who perform critical administrative duties, will have “tremendous responsibilities” in Afghanistan, Dickerson said.
And even more, as real mothers, each will become a “mother replacement” to younger soldiers who need what a mother has years of experience doing – taking care of a family.
“It is just that in Afghanistan, that family will not be their own children,” said Dickerson. “But they will be looked to for guidance, for knowledge, that only mothers have.”
One last practice
After school, Kaliya Gause used to go to Thomas Gymnastics – a place of frenetic activity, joy and fun, schoolwork and computers and balance beams.
Wednesday was the last practice for Kaliya before leaving for California. Sgt. Terri Kelly arrived at 5:57 p.m., in uniform from work at the armory. She walked straight to where the kids keep their stuff, and grabbed her daughter’s book bag.
“Purple,” Kelly said. “She loves purple. Purple shoes, too. Purple sneakers.”
The soldier walked over to the seats, bleachers really, and sat down without trying to draw attention to herself as she has done so many times before. She failed.
A 14-year-old kid, a stranger, walked up. Named Dustin McNeely, he said, “Thank you for your service to our country.”
“Thank you,” said Sgt. Kelly.
Other people asked about the uniform this time, about this lady who always picked up her daughter with a hug as mothers do everywhere. Tiffani Caldwell, a mother, too, walked over and said, “Please, please be careful – you have a beautiful daughter.”
The two were introduced. Both have daughters at Thomas Gymnastics, a place where dreams are made to come true, not wars fought. But the uniform cuts through dreams.
Caldwell knows more than a little about wars. Her husband, Sgt. Cedric Caldwell, was wounded in Iraq in 2006, when the Humvee he was in was bombed. Sgt. Caldwell, a Rock Hill soldier just like Terri Kelly, heroically saved two men from burning deaths that horrible day even though his own injuries were so bad they required surgery.
Two little kids came up to see Kaliya and her mother. Kennedy Prioleau and Weston Tiller, both 9. A pair of Kaliya’s best friends.
“Be safe,” the kids said to their friend’s mother.
Sgt. Kelly and her daughter then left, without fanfare, to finish packing for their deployments – Kaliya to California; her mother first to training stateside, then to Afghanistan.
‘My mom’s day’
Today – after a going-away event in Lake View among extended family – Sgt. Kelly will not wear a uniform, one last time before a year of wearing nothing else.
She and Kaliya will spend the day at Myrtle Beach, just the two of them, doing girl stuff.
“It is my mom’s day,” said Kaliya.
Then mother and daughter will drive home, and at 8 a.m. Monday, Staff Sgt. Terri Kelly will be in formation along with 160 other soldiers. All will officially be activated.
None will belong to mothers or fathers, husbands or wives, or even their own children.
They become the full-time property of Uncle Sam, with orders to soon go to Afghanistan.
A place where mothers wear boots and have dirt and sand on their faces – and daughters are a million miles away.