Families' wait is almost over

They're eager for their Marines to get home, but a lot has changed

April 7, 2007

A white Marine Corps dress hat has been sitting in a place of honor in 9-week-old Jocelyn Shattuck's living room in Mason for longer than the tiny pink bundle has been alive.

Jocelyn's father, Lance Cpl. Alex Shattuck, left it there before she was born -- before he left for Iraq on Dec. 16 to reinforce the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marines.

He's never laid eyes on his daughter.

"I just hate the fact that he hasn't seen her," said Shattuck's wife, 22-year-old Erin Shattuck. "Sometimes I feel really bad for myself ... but it just must be really tough for him."

The deployment of about 700 Michigan Marine reservists is winding down, and if all goes well, Lance Cpl. Shattuck will meet his baby girl before the end of the month.

As the reunions near, families all across Michigan are mixing anticipation with anxiety, preparing to greet their returning husbands, sons and sweethearts.

Each of the 1/24's five battalions is hosting a return and reunion meeting for wives and families to help ease the transition. The headquarters company, based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, held its meeting last weekend.

"I don't know if I'm living in a dream world, but ... I just think he's going to be the same," Erin Shattuck said of her husband.

She acknowledged that Hollywood has provided her only clues to life in a combat zone, but she's confident her husband -- a football standout in high school, a Ferris State University criminal justice major, and an easygoing jokester who would be "tough to break" -- will be fine.

"I feel like I can tell, when I talk to him, that he's still the same," she said. "He talks like he's just over at one of his friends' house."

A lot to catch up on

It's not just the Marines and sailors whose experiences the last few months may have changed them. That's one of the key lessons of the reunion meetings, which generally include chaplains, counselors and veterans' benefits experts. "I went from being a 21-year-old with a boyfriend to being married, with a kid, real fast," said Erin Shattuck, who married Alex in November and has had a birthday since he left.

Alex Shattuck proposed to her Oct. 13, then found out he was shipping out two days later. So while Erin may be adjusting to some changes on Alex's part, he'll be noting changes in her, too.

The same is likely to be true at Julie Kolomjec's house in Grosse Pointe Farms. In the year or so since her husband, Maj. Christopher Kolomjec, was recalled to active duty, she has discovered reserves of strength she never knew she had.

"I'm a little bit nervous because I've been by myself for so long," she said. "I feel like I've grown up in a lot of ways. I'm independent. ... My husband told me the other day, 'I'm proud of you.' "

While her husband has been away, it's fallen to Julie Kolomjec to manage a busy household. She gets three children to school, church, hockey and the doctor. She pays the bills. She takes care of the cars.

All from a house the family has lived in for about a year -- but which her husband, an attorney who closed his practice when he was deployed, has lived in for only about three weeks.

"I think I sacrifice, as well as Chris sacrifices," Julie Kolomjec said. "My husband kind of took care of us. ... I never paid a bill. ... So I had to do a lot of different things I never thought I would do. But I made it through."

She discovered how exercise can relieve stress -- so there's less of her than there was when her husband deployed. She was used to her Marine husband leaving the house at dawn for his solitary runs. Now he may have to adjust to some company during them.

"I never exercised," she said. "Now I'm actually going to do a marathon in October. And my husband tells me, 'You're going to do a marathon?' "

A battle of her own

The deployment has been a different kind of marathon for Sandy Leshinsky. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just before her husband, Joseph, was asked to serve as 1/24's battalion sergeant major -- its senior enlisted man -- during the unit's deployment to Iraq.

It would have been easy for her to hunker down and worry about nothing but beating her own illness. But living with a Marine Corps sergeant major must have rubbed off on her. She decided to take the fight to the enemy.

She urges women to get digital mammograms and have them read by two experts. She introduces people fighting cancer to a woman who makes custom "hair prostheses." She even prodded the government of her native New Zealand to help improve women's access to a new and potent cancer drug.

"I've learned how much strength I have," Leshinsky said. "I didn't know I had it in me."

During all the weeks her body was being bombarded with radiation, for example, she had to call someone for a ride to the hospital only once.

"I never say this," Leshinsky said, blushing, "but I'm proud of myself for getting through it."

The Marines who come back to the United States this month are likely to say the same thing.

Erin Shattuck is proud enough that she sought -- by leaving her husband's spotless white hat in plain view -- to remind herself of her husband's service each day.

It's been sitting in her living room since Veterans Day, Nov. 11 -- when he came home in his dress blues, from the funeral of Lance Cpl. Troy Nealey, a 1/24 Marine from Eaton Rapids who was killed in action Oct. 29.

"He just happened to leave his hat on top of the TV," Erin Shattuck said. "I moved it to the shelf, and it's been there ever since."

Just like his shaving kit and his toothbrush, which remain just where he left them in December.

Because he'll need them when he comes home.

And if all goes well, he and all of his comrades will be coming home soon.

Contact JOHN MASSON at 586-469-4904 or masson@freepress.com.