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Among the courageous

Christopher Haas, of Crescent City, clears an aircraft for takeoff at a desert air base as Senior Airman Jennifer Grillo looks on. He said his service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom has made him more patriotic and  that playing a long distance chess game with his father is keeping connections strong. (Master Sgt. Charles Ramey/ Superintendent, Public Affairs 44th Air Expeditionary Group).
Christopher Haas, of Crescent City, clears an aircraft for takeoff at a desert air base as Senior Airman Jennifer Grillo looks on. He said his service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom has made him more patriotic and that playing a long distance chess game with his father is keeping connections strong. (Master Sgt. Charles Ramey/ Superintendent, Public Affairs 44th Air Expeditionary Group).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

The energetic child who "spilled his milk every night" has grown up. Del Norte High School graduate Christopher Haas, 22, is an air traffic controller stationed at a desert base in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With the war quieting down in Iraq, Christopher's parents, Ron and Debbie Mayhue and his two teenage sisters Amber and Dessirae, are feeling slight relief from the emotional pressures that have been mounting since the war first began almost a month ago.

Fear and anxiety mixed with pride are some of the emotions still simmering just below the surface for Haas' youngest sister, Dessirae.

"For me, this is the first war I've ever experienced or can remember and having someone from your family over there ..." she began, while trying to hold back a well of tears. A quietness hung after her words. She left the room soon after with her hand to her mouth.

Christopher Haas spent much of his childhood playing in this neighborhood on the outskirts of Crescent City. Small hand imprints of the boy are still visible in the driveway. A damp American flag snapped from its place near the front door in the early evening drizzle.

The Mayhues are doing what they can to stay informed and support their son and country. While the 24-hour news coverage of the event drives Ron outside to work on his truck, it brings Debbie relief.

On Jan. 7 Haas was deployed from his home base in Las Vegas to Iraq. During the first few weeks, his family didn't hear a word from him. Then gradually the letters began to come. Written on his last piece of paper and posted with a borrowed stamp, the first letters were given to an airman on his way back to the states.

"Naturally there were no communications for the first couple of months over here, however after the first two weeks my commander, at the time, coordinated for all of us to make one three-minute phone call via satellite phone. Three minutes might not seem like a lot, but being on the other side of the world, and missing home and family, it raised our spirits tremendously," wrote Haas in an e-mail response to The Triplicate.

Details of their son's new surroundings began to emerge. He compared the environment to the Las Vegas desert where he had worked for the last three years. Only this desert lacked the mountain backdrop, cacti or glow of city lights.

"I am sure the news has described the sandstorms that plague this area. They are frequent and sometimes savage. I live in a tent with nine other people, so the living area can sometimes be cramped. Yet in times of turmoil, people tend to bond together. I have made some of the best friends I have ever known. We have a chow hall, thus have the good fortune of three hot meals a day. Oftentimes, however, duty calls and we cannot leave the tower for a meal, so we eat MREs (meals-ready-to-eat), which are surprisingly tasty," wrote Haas.

E-mails soon became the correspondence of choice. With a laptop computer he had traded in exchange for his car back in the states, news to and from home was now at his fingertips. A chessboard is set up in the Mayhue home, and every-other day, Haas e-mails a move.

"I haven't played chess with my father since I was a kid. I forgot how well he played. During off duty I study our game a lot, and thus have the advantage. The game has been going for two months now, but I think I'll have him in checkmate within the week!"

For a family that is obviously so closely knit, the separation hasn't been easy. But they get by because of a large network of friends, members of their church and coworkers.

For the past several rainy Saturdays, the Mayhue family has been joining other concerned citizens at the S-curve to show their support for the troops. Tattered yellow ribbons hang where a group of 30 people gathered last weekend. The Mayhues say participating in the rallies gives them a feeling they are doing something rather than just sitting idly by.

"By the time the hour comes to an end our hands are so cold ... but then we get to talking and how our boys would love to have weather like this," said Debbie Mayhue. She wears a red, white and blue ribbon in her pulled-back hair and a picture of her son in uniform is pinned to her lapel.

The Mayhues have met many other families in similar situations through the rallies and have also come to realize that being able to talk to their son is a luxury a lot of parents don't have.

"It always seems like there's someone with a son or daughter in a worse position," said Ron Mayhue.

Ron Mayhue, who encouraged his son to enlist in the Air Force, began to have second thoughts after tension in Iraq started heating up.

"I've been beating myself up about encouraging him to join the Air Force," said Mayhue.

His apprehension dissolved after receiving a letter from Haas who thanked him for his guidance and direction. Haas explained he has no regrets. Mayhue carries this letter close to his heart, in the pocket of his prison-officer uniform.

Haas is hopeful that he can return to the states by June 1, when he is expected to get two weeks R&R.

"He was always saying he would make it back in time for his sister Amber's graduation. With things heating up in Syria right now, who knows," said Debbie Mayhue.

"My girlfriend and I are going to travel home to Crescent City, where I will spend time with my family, and most likely gloat over my father's chess defeat. The atmosphere here is tense and the desert is dry and barren, so I will spend some of that time hiking, fishing, and camping, thinking all the while, "There's no place like home!" said Haas.

Another "support our troops" rally is scheduled for this weekend. It will include music by Crescent Sound Machine and the raising of an American Flag by a fire-truck ladder. The Mayhues are hopeful they will see a crowd of 100 or more. The event will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday.

"I have met many host-nation people, and they have had a big effect on me. They are very devout religious people, very knowledgeable about American ways, and are also very political. I have watched their attitudes change significantly regarding the war. Initially they were strongly opposed, showed a great deal of resentment, and spoke strongly against America's choice to liberate Iraq," Hass said in an e-mail from Iraq.

"Now in the aftermath, things are different. They often show gratitude and respect for our actions. They are starting to see that we are not selfishly invading a country, but are taking care of a-quarter century of oppression and violence. I make it clear to them that these Americans that die for this cause are giving the ultimate sacrifice for the Iraqi people, and that they are true heroes in my book.

"Being over here has also made me very patriotic. With so much support from back home, there is no other place I would rather be than here, doing my part."

 


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