Saturday, October 11, 2003

Soft mattress, dumplings greet soldier on vacation

The Associated Press

GREENVILLE, Ohio - After spending seven months in Iraq and surviving an ambush, Army infantryman Matt Skidmore is soaking up a two-week vacation home in rural western Ohio.

A soft mattress, his mother's chicken and dumplings, and his 2-month-old son are making it hard for him to return. But Skidmore said the pain of going back will be softened because U.S. soldiers are doing a great deal of good in Iraq.

Skidmore, 22, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, is among the first of the troops deployed in Iraq to take part in the military's largest home-leave program since the Vietnam War.

"It's been great. Everybody back here is so supportive," Skidmore said.

The day Skidmore returned to Ohio, Oct. 3, he; his wife, Celeste; and their son Jaxson went to New Madison High School, where Skidmore's sister was a candidate to be queen of the school fair.

"I walked into the gym, and I was holding him. Everyone started cheering and clapping," Skidmore said. "Celeste looked at me, and she said, 'Matt, they're cheering for you.' I looked up and the whole side of the gym was giving me a standing ovation. It was pretty moving."

Skidmore, who has steely blue eyes and an easy smile, speaks softly and slowly. Searing temperatures and physical rigors of Iraq have melted 30 pounds from his 180-pound frame. Even though temperatures at home have been in the 70s, Skidmore dresses in jeans and a jacket as his body struggles to adjust.

When the Defense Department announced the leave program, some critics saw it as a tacit admission that the Iraqi deployment would last far longer than envisioned. Some veterans groups said that 15 days was just long enough to make soldiers miserable.

But many returning soldiers said they were grateful to escape the relentless heat of the Iraqi desert, to eat home-cooked meals and to reconnect with their families after nearly a year overseas.

Skidmore spent his first week of leave visiting family. On Friday, the couple took Jaxson to the doctor for a checkup. On Saturday, Skidmore's parents planned a fish fry at the family farm.

"I've really been looking forward to Mom's cooking - home cooking, the good stuff you can't get over there," Skidmore said.

Skidmore missed the birth of his son.

"I thought I was coming home to a little baby, and he's huge," Skidmore said. "I was really hoping I'd get to come home to see him born, but now is about the perfect time to be home."

Celeste, Skidmore's grade-school sweetheart, has a strong opinion on her husband's leave.

"It's definitely not long enough," she said.

Skidmore joined the Army in 1998 after graduating from New Madison High, where he played baseball and basketball. After a three-year stint in the Army, he re-enlisted. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had much to do with it.

"September 11th - that really put something into me," he said. "I wanted to stay in."

Skidmore deployed to Iraq in March, fought in the war and ended up near Mosul in northern Iraq. His unit patrols nearby villages, assesses their needs and then helps the villagers rebuild.

"The vast majority of the people over there want us there," he said. "They're so happy to see us every day."

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