Mother’s Iraq deployment eased by helping hands for son at home

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
It may not take an entire village to raise a child, but in the case of Harlem Jones, a few extra pairs of helping hands sure go a long way.
Harlem is the 3-year-old son of Lucy Jones, a senior airman and military police officer in the Air Force. She’s leaving today for a return to service in Iraq.
Lucy, 26, has been home for two weeks of leave. She’s in the middle of her fourth deployment to Iraq, and can only manage a weak grin when asked if it’s not about time someone else had the pleasure of serving in the desert war.
“It’s really not that bad,” Lucy said of her time in Iraq. “Things are much better than they were a couple of years ago.”
Lucy is a single mother and getting lots of help when it comes to raising Harlem (he’s not named for a section of New York City, but, instead, his moniker draws letters from the names of each of Lucy’s three brothers).
Lucy’s mother, Bernese Jones, is Harlem’s primary caregiver. She’s retired and disabled, but never hesitated when Lucy asked if she’d be willing to care for Harlem when she was deployed.
“She raised me,” Lucy said of her mother. “I knew she’d do fine with him.”
Also playing a big role in Harlem’s upbringing are members of the staff of Salisbury-Rowan Child Care/Learning Center on Standish Street near Livingstone College. There, staffers give Harlem the loving attention he needs.
“When Harlem comes in in the mornings, he shouts, ‘I’m here!’ ” said Maggie Reid, the child care’s owner. “There’s no doubt when Harlem has arrived.”
Harlem needs a bit of special attention for a number of reasons. He was born three months premature and entered the world at only 1 pound, 9 ounces.
But his mother said doctors never had any doubt he’d survive.
“They said he had a strong heart and his lungs were good,” Lucy said of the first report doctors gave her. “I knew I had a fighter.”
Harlem has grown and comes across as an articulate, outgoing toddler. He laughs readily and shows an interest in all the mysteries the world has to offer.
But he also suffers ear infections and a variety of other ailments often associated with babies who were born prematurely, and as a result sometimes doesn’t attend day care for a week or more at a time.
Lucy said that even when Harlem is healthy, she and her mother never planned to have the boy in day care more than two or three days a week. But she said that with the exception of Salisbury-Rowan Child Care, no other day care was interested in giving her a discount from what was charged the parents of children who were there full time.
And Lucy said that on an airman’s salary and with little financial support from Harlem’s father, there’s typically not a lot extra to go around.
“The others wanted to charge me 400 bucks,” Lucy said of the fee for a month’s worth of day care.
“He’s not here 400 bucks.”
Lucy said while she’s in Iraq, her mother takes at least three pictures of Harlem a day. Bernese is not computer savvy, so she sends pictures through traditional mail. Lucy said that at least once a week, she gets a big package from home with pictures of her son.
She said she often videotapes herself talking to her son, then sends the tape home so her son can watch. The bond between mother and son remains strong despite a distance of several thousand miles.
“He tells people, ‘Mommy’s on an airplane,’ ” Lucy said, noting the association in her son’s mind likely stems from the wings on her Air Force uniform. “I’ve only been there for birthday No. 2.”
Lucy said she hopes things change in the not-too-distant future. Her current deployment is scheduled to end in September, though, as she noted, few things involving the military are etched in stone.
When not overseas, Lucy lives in Omaha, Neb., where Harlem was born and where she’s stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. She said she’s hoping to be transferred to Charleston, S.C., when this deployment ends, meaning her ties and proximity to her family will be greatly improved.
For the time being, everyone involved is helping her make the best of a not-so-perfect situation. Lucy ó a graduate of West Rowan High School and Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales University ó said her mother lives in East Spencer in a neighborhood that’s made up primarily of senior citizens.
She said that were it not for Salisbury-Rowan Child Care, her son would have little opportunity to interact with children his own age.
She said the changes in Harlem are phenomenal. Until the past couple of weeks, the last time she’d seen her son was last June.
“My son couldn’t talk when I left,” Lucy said. “He’s saying everything now.”
She admits her pregnancy wasn’t planned, and said she wouldn’t advise any young woman to experience what she’s experienced in recent years.
That said, Lucy also admitted that ó thanks to a big helping hand from numerous loved ones ó there are plenty of people in the world who have it worse than her and her son.
Reid said she’s just hoping Lucy soon gets to return permanently to the United States.
“I don’t like a mama going to war,” Reid said. “Leave mamas at home with their children.”
Lucy laughed as she heard the words, acknowledging that serving anywhere in the world at any time is a part of being enlisted in the military.
“I knew my risks,” she said of the odds of being deployed (time and again) to Iraq. “It just comes with the territory.”