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thedrifter
04-05-06, 03:20 PM
Tying the ribbon on a military career
Erin Klegstad, Staff Reporter
04/05/2006

Tattered and faded, two American flags and one yellow ribbon waved for the last time this past Tuesday.

They welcomed Zach Madsen, an Alaska National Guard soldier who spent the past year serving in Iraq, home to his mother’s house on the west shore of Lake Carlos.

Patty Den Hartog has flown the flags and yellow ribbon – through rain, snow and sunshine – in her front yard during each of her son’s three deployments since 1999. She did the same when her other son, Justin, served in Somalia during the early 1990s.

Each time Madsen returned, she took them down. “And the day he left [for Iraq], I put them back up,” Den Hartog said.

But this time, she let her son take them down, symbolizing the end of his 10-year military career.

“I’m hanging up my uniform and my boots for my family,” Madsen said. He had planned on re-enlisting, but after his two grandfathers passed away while he was in Iraq – and he was unable to attend their funerals – he decided against it.

“I decided I can’t,” Madsen said. “I missed a lot of things [because of the military].”

This deployment was different than his previous two – for both him and his mom – because it was much more dangerous.

Through constant gunfire and daily explosions, Madsen patrolled the streets of Baghdad and manned the base’s perimeter and tower guards.

“I wasn’t scared, but I had fear,” Madsen said. “That’s what keeps you alive.”

His mom, however, was scared. “It was very nerve-wracking,” Den Hartog said about her son’s deployment to Iraq. “I couldn’t watch the news or read about it [the war].”

Besides being in touch with her son via e-mail and phone conversations, she had plenty of support to keep her strong while he was there – her family, friends, church and employer.

Den Hartog also formed prayer chains. “I always imagined angel’s wings around him,” she said. “That’s how I thought and how I prayed.”

Both are sure those angel’s wings are what kept Madsen and his unit safe while in Iraq. “Our unit was very fortunate,” Madsen said. “We all made it back in one piece.”

He remembers not much happening while patrolling the streets of Baghdad with his squad. More action occurred when he wasn’t on patrol or in the guard towers. So much so that his fellow soldiers joked he should be patrolling all the time.

“It was quieter,” he remembers about his patrols. “I thought it was kind of weird.”

One of his unit’s interpreters wasn’t so lucky – she was murdered by the insurgents because she was helping the coalition forces.

“The value on their lives is so different than ours,” Madsen said quietly. “They [the interpreters] are trying to help us so we can help them.”

One of his buddies said it best when he was being heckled by a Baghdad grocery store clerk. “He told her – politely and professionally – ‘Me putting on this uniform gives you the right to say what you want,’ ” Madsen said.

Since he officially “hung up” his uniform, Madsen has been busy. He’s traveled to Hong Kong with his girlfriend to meet her parents, to his aunt’s in California, his mom’s in Alexandria and to Iowa to say goodbye to his grandfathers.

And this week, he will travel home to Anchorage, Alaska, where he plans to start working again as a transportation security administrator at the airport.

For Den Hartog, she’s just glad her son is home. “Part of me was over there, too,” she said, smiling. “That part’s home now.”

Ellie