Nashua father and son spend Christmas deployed with the NH National Guard

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News
December 23. 2016 8:17PM
Paul Pakenham Sr. and Jr. are seen in the photo that graced the Nashua family's Christmas cards this year. They are deployed in Iraq with the New Hampshire National Guard. (COURTESY)

NASHUA -- A small banner with two blue stars hangs in the front window of Heather Pakenham's cheerfully decorated home.

Inside, presents are piled high around a Christmas tree. But many of those gifts will remain wrapped a few weeks longer.

Pakenham's husband and son are serving in Iraq with the New Hampshire Army National Guard's 197th Field Artillery Regiment.

Staff Sgt. Paul Pakenham Sr. is a platoon leader with Echo Battery. Their 26-year-old son, Spc. Paul Pakenham Jr., a radar operator, is serving alongside his dad.

Fifteen years after the 9/11 terror attacks, New Hampshire still has 115 National Guardsmen serving overseas. And for their families, that means another Christmas with empty chairs and full hearts.

Staff Sgt. Pakenham postponed his retirement so he could deploy with his son.

His wife says she didn't give him a choice: "You're not retiring until you go over there and look out for the baby," she told him.

That's her pet name for her middle child, her only son.

One ornament on her Christmas tree is a boy in Army fatigues, a sweet reminder of Paul Jr. "No matter how old he gets, I still think of him that way: a little boy in a uniform," she said.

Father and son deployed last March; it was Paul Sr.'s second deployment with the 197th. Six years ago, he provided convoy security during the drawdown in Iraq.

Back then, her husband told her he thought they were leaving too soon, that they'd be back, Heather said.

He was right.

Paul Jr. didn't tell his mom he was joining the Guard until the week before he left for basic training; his dad knew his plans.

"They didn't tell me until the last moment because they knew I was going to try to talk him out of it," she said. "Especially during a time of war, your chances of getting deployed are really good."

A time of war. That's the reality for those who serve, a reality too often forgotten by the rest of us.

Paul Jr. told his mom he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. He had watched his father, his hero, deploy to defend his country. "I want to be just like him, and you want to tell me I can't?'" he asked her.

"I had to let him go," Heather said.

Paul Sr., who served for seven years in the Army infantry before joining the New Hampshire National Guard, had to go back to school for radar training so he could deploy with his son's unit.

Father and son are extremely close, Heather said. "They do everything together."

In an interview from Iraq over Facebook Messenger, Staff Sgt. Pakenham said he gets to see his son practically every day. "I try to be impartial, but it's hard not to try to look out for him a little bit," he said.

They go to the gym together every day, he said, and they started a Brazilian jiu-jitsu club so they and other soldiers can keep up their training.

Pakenham said their platoon's mission is to support the Iraqis in their fight against ISIS; he can't say much more than that.

His wife said they don't tell her much about what they're doing over there. "I know they've been fired upon and they've fired back," she said. "My husband says, 'Don't worry about us. They're really bad at shooting.'"

But that's not much comfort, she said. "Sometimes I wonder how much of it is just a lie, just to keep me sane."

Heather will spend Christmas with her daughters, 16-year-old Taylor and 27-year-old Kimberly, and future daughter-in-law, Adrienne Thompson, who lives with the family.

Paul Jr. proposed on Adrienne's birthday last year, just before he deployed. Thompson said this first deployment has been tough; she and Paul were inseparable. "He's my best friend," she said.

Paul Sr. said this is "absolutely" the last Christmas he'll spend apart from the rest of his family. "I am retiring when we get back," he said.

But he's proud to be serving with his boy. "Someday I hope my son's kids are going to look at the pictures of Grampa and him serving in Iraq," he said. "It's just a great memory."

Sadness, solace

For Heather, the toughest moment in the deployment so far wasn't something that happened over there but on the homefront. A few weeks ago, the family's beloved 10-year-old German shepherd Asbach went into kidney failure.

Heather called her son to tell him she had to put Asbach to sleep. He begged her to wait until he gets home so he could say goodbye. "Because right now, my dog thinks I abandoned him," he told her.

But the vet said Asbach was suffering, she told him; they had to let him go. "He broke down on the phone, and that was heart-wrenching," she said. "And I can't even hug him."

Solace came in an unexpected way.

A stray dog, gaunt, starving and pregnant, had wandered into the Army camp in Iraq. And while it's technically against Army rules, the two Pakenhams adopted the sweet dog, naming her Jasmine.

She gave birth to eight puppies; all have survived. The men have been sneaking some of their rations to Jasmine to keep her healthy enough to nurse.

Now mama dog and her pups are coming to America.

The SPCA has arranged to get the dogs out of Iraq and into quarantine in Germany so they can come to the U.S., Paul Sr. said.

Paul Jr. has adopted one of the puppies, naming him Ranger, and some of the civilian contractors working with the soldiers are adopting the rest.

Paul Sr. is taking Jasmine.

Heather said she told her husband she wasn't ready for a new dog, so soon after their German shepherd's death. He wouldn't hear it, she said.

Everybody wanted a puppy, he told his wife. The mother dog is malnourished and needs a home. "Do you really want me to take her puppies and leave her behind?" he asked her.

That settled it.

These days, the New Hampshire soldiers are busy training their replacements. Staff Sgt. Pakenham said they're grateful for all the love and support they've been getting from home.

Theirs is the smallest unit over there, he said, "but we're getting more care packages than anyone else."

Pakenham said what he misses most, besides his family, is privacy. And he longs for the comforts of home; it's been cold in Iraq.

He and the other platoon leaders plan to cover their soldiers' shifts on Christmas Day so they can have the day off. There will be a special Christmas dinner; they even flew in some pine trees from Denmark to make it feel a little more like home.

Pakenham knows Christmas apart is toughest on the families back home. But for the Guardsmen, he said, there's a growing sense of anticipation as their time there grows short.

"The holidays just mean we're going home," he said.

"Which is about the best Christmas gift you can get."

swickham@unionleader.com


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