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thedrifter
03-29-03, 06:57 AM
Article ran : 03/30/2003
'My Daddy is Gone'
By KINEA WHITE
DAILY NEWS STAFF
One-year-old Matthew Harris Jr. can’t even fathom where his father is or what he’s doing.



Matthew doesn’t know where Iraq is or even how to spell it. As far as he knows, daddy’s simply not home.



On a recent afternoon in the living room of the family’s Hunters Creek home, Matthew was juggling — trying to get a handle on a soccer ball that’s almost bigger than he is — and pushing around a toy grocery cart.



Life is still somewhat normal in his little world. The most he can do when his father calls is say “Da da, da da.”



Their father, Staff Sgt. Matthew Harris, 31, is a machine gunner with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit that was originally scheduled to return home last week. Instead his unit headed for Iraq.



Three-year-old Bailey understands a little more than Matthew about her father’s situation.



“My daddy is on a big boat in the water,” she innocently says, as she twirls her finger in her curly ponytail. “I hepcopter took him on the water.”



Her older sister, 8-year-old Linda, grasps the situation a lot better. Every morning before she gets dressed to go to school, Linda plants herself in front of the TV to watch the news.



“I watch it all the time,” Linda says, sitting in the living room. “I know that they’re talking about Iraq and war,



“I’m sad because my dad is gone,” she adds, “but since he has been gone he’s written me two letters.”



Usually at night Linda writes letters to her dad in her journal. “My teacher said if we keep a journal while they are gone then when they get back, it’s like they can read what we’ve been doing so it’s like they weren’t gone.”



But lately, Linda admits she’s been a little lazy.



In their rooms, Linda, Bailey and Matthew have pictures taped up of their father. Each also have a picture taken with him before he left.



“I’m proud of my dad, but I’m still sad. If I could talk to him, I would ask him, ‘How come you’re helping them, have they helped you?’ ” Linda says. “And I would tell him that I missed him.”



The energetic second-grader misses trying to tackle her statue-like father in a wrestling match.



“When he called, he told me that when he got home we would wrestle,” she says. “I’m ready to wrestle.”



The night President Bush gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein the 48-hour deadline to leave Baghdad, Linda looked at her mom, Jackie, and said ‘That’s the president. I want to be president one day.’ ”



Since their father deployed in August, Linda “tries” to assume the role of the “little mom” by helping out with her two younger siblings.



“Sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays, my mom will sleep in and I fix Bailey and Matthew breakfast and the cat,” she says. “I make sure I turn on ‘Dragon Tails for Bailey.’”



But her 36-year-old mom says that she tries to limit Linda’s responsibilities. “I don’t want this to change her. I don’t want her to grow up faster than she has to,” says Jackie.



A couple of months after her husband’s deployment, Jackie says the younger ones began to ask questions. “I just told them that daddy would be back soon,” she says, “and that’s what he tells them when they talk to him on the phone.”



She tries to give age-appropriate answers so at Linda at least understands the gist of what’s going on.



“I try not to keep her so involved,” she says. “But in case anything was to happen, I don’t want her to be in the dark; I want her to understand where her daddy is.”



But thinking of the worst is something Jackie tries not to do. “Sometimes this is not even real to me,” she says. “I guess that’s because I can see it on TV and I can always change the channel.”







Life goes on



For the Harris family, life has changed since the patriarch of the family deployed.



“He’s been gone three times before, but this time it’s totally different,” says Jackie, who has been married to Matthew for 11 years and has lived in Jacksonville for three.



Jackie admits this time is different because of the lack of information she’s been able to receive.



“The email has been good unless the system is down. I think I could probably count on both hands the (number of) phone calls,” she says. “But I understand because of the security especially after 9/11, but it’s still frustrating, especially when you have children that want answers.”



Jackie says that for most of the last seven months she tried to wear a brave face, until she heard the MEU was heading to Iraq.



“Someone called me and then I heard it on the news,” she says. “I just broke down,”



For Jackie, managing a dual role has probably been the most difficult thing.



“They (Linda and Bailey) are daddy’s girls,” she says. “So sometimes I have to be a little strict with them.”



Jackie says one of the most important things she tries to do is to keep things normal around the house.



“We still do (soccer) practices, I still help out at the school. Things are still going on,” Jackie says. “The more normal the better.”



Part of what helps Jackie cope with her situation has been her involvement with the Key Volunteers. “Being a Key Volunteer has helped out a lot,” she says. “It’s amazing how many wives you meet.”



Jackie says it never crossed her mind to return back to her home in Virginia when her husband left. “This is our home, this is our comfort zone,” she says.



Indeed, despite the inescapable presence of war, life does go on at the Harris home.



As the afternoon turns to evening, Linda pulls out her report card.



“I made the honor roll,” she announces.



Linda says she will show her dad her report card when he gets home.



Contact Kinea White at kwhite@jdnews.com or 353-1171, Ext. 235.




Sempers,

Roger