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Noel Pearson puts together a care package for her husband, Capt. Patrick Pearson, an F-16 pilot with the 14th Fighter Squadron who is deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, for four months.
Noel Pearson puts together a care package for her husband, Capt. Patrick Pearson, an F-16 pilot with the 14th Fighter Squadron who is deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, for four months. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The daily rhythm of life in Iraq for Airman 1st Class Jennifer Mayo consists of work, sleep, meals and mortars. The 21-year-old avionics specialist with Misawa Air Base’s 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron is about six weeks into her first deployment at Balad air base, north of Baghdad.

She’s adjusted to sleep deprivation, and calls the routine bursts and booms of gunfire and mortars — mostly outside the wire — background noise.

What she can’t quite shake is missing her husband and best friend, Airman 1st Class Michael Mayo, also an avionics specialist, but still at Misawa.

“He’s my everything,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Back home at Misawa, Michael has stepped up his snowboarding and video gaming but he feels the same void. “For me, as time goes by, it gets a little bit harder,” he said of being apart.

The Mayos are one of three young Misawa couples separated for the first time by the war in Iraq. Many more families here are experiencing similar hardships, with more than 400 airmen deployed in support of the 14th Fighter Squadron for four months.

For Jennifer, there’s been little time to dwell on missing her husband of two years. Working a swing shift, she clocks 13-to-14 hour days.

The high point to date was the first time one of the F-16s she works on came back without a bomb. It had been dropped in combat.

“It finally felt like we were doing all of this for a reason,” she wrote. “All of our training has paid off.”

Michael said she’s never mentioned the mortars to him on the phone.

“Whenever she talks to me, she always tries to make me laugh and stuff,” he said. “She says she doesn’t want to hear me sounding sad because it doesn’t help her.”

Misawa’s airmen are slated to return in May. But the Mayos aren’t making big plans. Michael is an alternate to deploy to Iraq this spring with the 13th Fighter Squadron.

Amber Newkirk, 19, is in the care package business. In the first month that her husband, Senior Airman Nathaniel Newkirk, 21, was gone, she mailed him an estimated 15 to 20 boxes. And it’s not the necessities he wants.

“Oh, you can get me the Japanese tea and send it to me. Can you send me the ‘Sanford and Son’ seasons? Can you send me cookies?” Amber recounts with a laugh. “He was never really a big sweet eater, then he wanted Girl Scout cookies.”

For Nathaniel, a life support technician, the days downrange hold the same routine: The alarm sounds at 6 a.m., and he’s to work by 8 a.m. After his shift ends 12 hours later, he gets dinner and then heads to the gym, winding down with some TV or a movie.

When she speaks to her husband twice a week for 15 minutes, Noel Pearson doesn’t ask about the job. She can’t. For security, that topic is off limits. “The biggest thing that I keep asking him is ‘Are you doing OK?’” she said. “Sometimes when he calls he’s either upbeat or if it’s been a long day, he’ll sound really tired.”

Noel keeps busy with trips on the weekend and Monday night dinners and Wednesday lunches with other spouses.

“I do miss the extra person in the room,” she said of her husband, Capt. Patrick Pearson, an F-16 pilot. “He’s very happy-go-lucky, cheerful. He makes me laugh a lot.”

Patrick is on his first combat deployment. He reports that the food is good and the rooms are comfortable.

In the air, he’s discovered that when things calm down, they don’t stay that way for long. “I go out the door fragged for a ‘routine’ mission knowing that at any moment, it could become very interesting very quickly,” he wrote.

“The fact that you can influence the situation for friendly forces on the ground or turn the tide in their favor just by showing up is surprisingly rewarding.”

He tries not to tell Noel details that would make her worry.

Noel said she and the other spouses do talk about the inherent danger of their husband’s jobs, but “you can’t consume yourself with worry. “We just try to stay rational (and think) we deal with this all of the time.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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