UI student soldiers away for the holidays

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 16, 2010 7:10 AM

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A 2-foot-tall Christmas tree sits atop a nightstand in Army Spc. Cliff Wallace's containerized housing unit in Balad, Iraq. The decor is simple: four blue light bulbs and a handful of small ornaments dot its artificial needles.

The fake pine, which he described over the phone from more than 6,600 miles away, reminds Wallace and his girlfriend, Army Spc. Emily Walter, who is also serving in Iraq, of Christmas celebrations at their homes in West Des Moines.

This year marks the first time either of the 19-year-olds — both University of Iowa students — have spent the holidays without their families, who say they are already feeling the pain of missing them.

At a spotless two-story brick home, Walter's mother, Margie Walter, grinds coffee beans before placing a piping hot Hawkeye-theme mug on the counter next to a plate of chocolate-covered gingerbread cookies.

In the corner of the living room, a Christmas tree stretches to the ceiling, topped by a pink angel. Margie Walter points to some of her youngest daughter's favorite ornaments: a lady with a turnip-shaped head and a sphere imprinted with a peace symbol. A thin ribbon, which reads "PFC Emily Walter," wraps around a portion of the tree.

"We'll try to Skype," Margie Walter says about communication with her daughter on Christmas Day. "My mom will cry, then [Emily's sister] Katy will cry, and then I'll cry.

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"But if she's happy, I'm happy," Margie Walther says after a prolonged sigh.

Fewer than 10 minutes east, the smells of vanilla and cinnamon waft from melting wax around the living room at Wallace's quaint house. A miniature oscillating manger scene sits on an end table.

Wallace's mother, Amanda Wallace, is wearing a bright red snowman sweater and the front of her hair poofs above a headband. Husband John Wallace and Cliff's two younger brothers, Jarrod and Seth, flank her as she discusses the unavoidable differences they'll face this Christmas.

Because the familydoesn't have relatives nearby, the Wallaces usually spend Christmas in their home. Cliff, Jarrod, and Seth typically wake up as early as 3 a.m. to open presents. But her sons, specifically Cliff Wallace, are "not little boys anymore," Amanda noted as she clasped her hands in front of her stomach.

"When he comes home, he'll have been to war," she said as if the prospect is still stunning to her. "He'll be a man."

Cliff Wallace was only a junior at Valley High in West Des Moines when he decided to join the Army. He was always fascinated with planes, his parents said.

He graduated and decided to come to the University of Iowa. But by his first semester at the UI last fall, he knew he was going to be deployed to Iraq.

Now, he serves as an ammunition specialist. His group is responsible for removing ammunition from Iraq to prepare for the Army's withdrawal in 2011.

"It's cool to feel like I made a difference in my own small way," he said in a call from Iraq. "Later on down the road, I can say I helped bring [the war in Iraq] to a close."

Emily Walter proclaimed her interest in joining the Army during her senior year at Valley — the same year she started dating Cliff — after she met an Army recruiter. Her parents weren't convinced, but she relented. She was taking 14 semester hours at the UI last spring, but in April, she got a surprise call notifying her of an open spot in her boyfriend's deployment.

"It was a shock, definitely," she said.

The avid runner is one of the unit's public-affairs specialists. She does layout, design, editing, and occasional reporting for the Expeditionary Times, a newspaper circulated throughout Iraq, which details the withdrawal efforts.

"I'm really glad I'm doing it," she said. "I obviously miss home and my friends and everything, especially around the holiday season, but it's a really good experience."

In Iraq, Walter said, the pair's jobs keep them busy so they try find time to see each other at least a couple nights a week.

"But it works," she said with a chuckle.

They are just two of the more than 16,380 Army Reserve soldiers overseas, hundreds of whom are from Iowa units, said Sgt. Troy Falardeau of the U.S. Army Reserve Command. Currently, 41 UI students are in active duty, according to the Registrar's Office.

Despite their parents' emotions, neither soldier plans to break from routine on Christmas. For Walter, Saturdays are the busiest because it's the day they print the paper. She just hopes she'll have a chance to Skype her family. Working during holidays is the norm, Wallace said.

"It is what it is," he said.

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