Iraq Countdown Separates Young Vineyard Family

By MANDY LOCKE

Seventeen hours before Jared Meader joined his comrades in Western Massachusetts, he sipped a whiskey sour, chatted with his buddies from the sheriff's department and helped his daughter, Hailey, grab a Cheeto just beyond the reach of her two-year-old arms.

Seemingly mundane activities for a weeknight in the dead of winter, this Island native tried to get his fill of the simple things he will miss for more than a year - during an overseas tour which could be extended another 265 days if war halfway around the world erupts.

While Mr. Meader's wife, Julie, and his mother, Robin, occasionally turned to wipe away a tear Monday night, the young soldier appeared calm.

"It's like football. For 10 years, I've shown up to practice and played hard, but I've never gotten in the game. The game's here. That's what practice was all about," Mr. Meader said as he fingered an engraved cross his mother gave her son in August 1993 when he left the Island for a six-year stint in the United States Marine Corps.

President Bush called Mr. Meader's 15-person, 321st water purification unit of the Massachusetts National Guard 101st Quartermaster Battalion into action Feb. 10 - ordered to join nearly 2,000 state guardsmen already overseas.

The news seeped into the Meader household quite suddenly, pulling Mr. Meader away from his wife, daughter Hailey and two-month-old son Hunter immediately for three weeks of orientation training in western Massachusetts. The National Guard granted the soldiers a 48-hour leave Sunday afternoon before shipping them to a Middle East nation Mr. Meader could not disclose and on a date he could not even tell his family.

"This is what I signed up for," Mrs. Meader said with a laugh. She joked that her marriage vows should have included a line about two-year-long absences.

"I'm almost anxious for him to go so that I can begin the countdown for his return. It's been such a roller coaster the last month," said the young mother, who is left behind with two children in diapers, in a Vineyard Haven home not yet completely built.

Monday night's farewell was familiar to the young soldier's parents, Danny and Robin Meader. A young military wife in 1978, Robin clutched two babies, two-year-old Jared and a one-month-old daughter Jaime, when her husband was shipped to Okinawa, Japan for a year.

"It's why my husband got out of the military. When he returned, his daughter didn't know him and Jared barely recognized him. It's too hard," the elder Mrs. Meader said. She said her husband retired from the Marines after nine years.

But the prospect of war against Iraq is one fight the young Mr. Meader does not want to miss. He left the Island for a faraway battlefront on the noon ferry Tuesday.

"Saddam Hussein has been proven to be crazy. He kills his own people and looks the other way when terrorists train in his country. We've been isolated for so long, and Sept. 11 reminded us that we aren't. Now's the time to react," Mr. Meader said.

Despite recent anti-war protests in America, some that touched the Island community, Mr. Meader has no misgivings about his participation in a possible war against Iraq.

"A protest has never stopped a war. So long as there are troops to send, there will be wars," he said.

As part of a water purification unit, this sergeant expects a warm welcome from some of the hundreds of thousands of military men and women waiting in Middle East countries for a war declaration from the White House.

"In the desert, water's your most precious commodity. I understand we'll be treated very well," Mr. Meader said, explaining that his team can rid any type of water of deadly contamination. The unit is prepared to produce enough water for cooking, consumption and weekly showers for men and twice weekly for females living in temporary bases.

Even though the Meader family traded military duties for a quieter life as operators of the Flying Horses carousel before Jared entered kindergarten, the guardsman's childhood play involved some sort of military games. When Mr. Meader, at the age of 17, asked his parents to sign permission forms for him to enlist in the Marines, his mother said she was neither surprised nor pleased.

Mr. Meader devoted the next six years to the Marine Corps as a machinist, then an expert marksman who taught other soldiers and competed for the Corps against other military branches. He spent one year of duty at a base in Japan - seeing the world, as Mr. Meader puts it, on "taxpayers' dollars." The same day he ended his six-year commitment with the Marines in 1999, Mr. Meader enlisted with the National Guard and worked with the military police in Taunton while his future wife finished college in North Adams.

The Meaders returned to the Island, where both of their families still lived, shortly after they were married. Mr. Meader took a job as a deputy sheriff at the Dukes County House of Corrections, and Mrs. Meader juggles teaching figure skating to Island youth with the new responsibilities of motherhood.

Hailey will utter her first sentence and Hunter will take his first step in their father's absence, but Mrs. Meader promises to capture the children's progress in audio cassette recordings she'll ship to her husband. Mr. Meader also packed away a mini-recorder, a device he hopes will at least keep his voice familiar to Hailey and Hunter.

The sergeant also packed a few war movies, We Were Soldiers and Braveheart, and a PlayStation II in his military duffel bag - creature comforts the military allows as part of a "morale welfare recreation pack." His wife is already picking items - Koolaid mix, a Nerf football and Hailey's drawings - she'll send in his first care package.

But no amount of packing, list-making and pep talking can prepare Mr. Meader's family for his absence.

"I knew this could come, but I always thought it would be everyone else's husband first," Mrs. Meader said.