Members of Medinaâ€™s Ohio Army National Guard unit learned last year they would be deployed to Kuwait. Five citizen-soldiers shared their thoughts about serving their country and their days with family and friends before they said goodbye. This is the third installment in a four-part series. For a multimedia version of this story, visit wp2.medina-gazette.com/2008/01/10/photo-journal/the-family-man/
At 20 months, Kali Tesar loves playing with her toys, especially if they make music, and coloring on any surface she can reach, including the top of her daddyâ€™s laptop and the walls of her grandparentsâ€™ house.
She also loves to play with her daddy, Ohio Army National Guard Spc. Matt Tesar, who will lift her up on his shoulders and give her hugs whenever she comes around.
How Kali will react to his departure â€” and return after a yearâ€™s deployment â€” worries him.
â€œMy biggest fear is what sheâ€™s going to be when I get back,â€ Matt said a few weeks before he left for Fort Hood, Texas, and his eventual deployment to Kuwait with his Guard unit. â€œWill she be happy to see me?â€
The longest he ever left Kali was for two weeks of training last summer. When she saw him for the first time after he returned home, she started screaming and ran away.
â€œThe first day, Kali didnâ€™t want anything to do with me,â€ he said.
This Christmas was the first Matt, 22, and his wife Heather, 23, celebrated as a married couple following their Sept. 22 wedding in Medina.
â€œThis year is kind of bittersweet,â€ she said. â€œThis year, we are just trying to get through.â€
Matt left early Sunday, two days after a formal deployment ceremony for the unit at the Medina High School Performing Arts Center.
Born and raised in Bowling Green, Ky., with her mother and brother, Heather has lived in Medina since Kali was a few months old and will stay and work during Mattâ€™s deployment.
Mattâ€™s parents and two sisters, who often help watch Kali, live about a mile away in a house filled with her toys near Medinaâ€™s Public Square. Melissa Tesar is 16 and Stefanie, 21, is a student at the University of Toledo.
About 10 days before Christmas, the tree at the Tesarsâ€™ apartment was still being set up â€” one of the ornaments on the tree was a paper gingerbread man Kali colored at a party at the Gov. John W. Brown Readiness Center in Medina last month.
During the decorating, Kali played with Melissaâ€™s cell phone and talked into it, but after Melissa went home, Kali sat on her motherâ€™s lap for awhile and then went over to hug Matt and sit on his lap.
â€œYouâ€™re never that lovey,â€ Heather said. â€œWhatâ€™s with you today?â€
This deployment is Mattâ€™s first overseas tour since he began his military service in the Army Reserve 4Â½ years ago when he was 17.
â€œ9/11 was the reason I joined,â€ he said, â€œI felt so helpless that day.â€
At the time, Matt had been talking to recruiters and was looking for direction in his life since he wasnâ€™t interested in attending college.
He switched to the National Guard a couple of years ago because he wanted to spend more time stateside and knew many members of the Medina unit.
â€œI wanted to be with everyone I know,â€ said Matt, a 2003 Medina High School graduate. â€œI am leaving one family for another.â€
He was in the same Boy Scout troop with several of them growing up and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. His friend, Andy Demczyk, who is also part of the Guard unit along with Andyâ€™s brother Joe, was a groomsman at Mattâ€™s wedding.
One of their officers, Sgt. Todd Schafer, was their Scoutmaster for many years and said the Scoutsâ€™ philosophy of service makes joining the military a natural choice for some.
â€œIt is nice knowing what kind of kids they were,â€ Todd said, who will remain in Medina at the readiness center. â€œI kind of think of ourselves as one big family as a unit.â€
Along with Matt and the Demczyks, two other members of the unit were in Toddâ€™s troop.
Candy cane cookies
An annual tradition for Mattâ€™s mother, Sue, and her family is to spend the weeks before Christmas baking cookies, and making chocolate and hard candies at their home.
On the Friday before Christmas, Matt, Heather and Kali were over to help Sue, Mattâ€™s father, Will, and Mattâ€™s sisters make sugar cookies.
The house had several inflatable Christmas figures in the front yard along with lights. A white banner with a blue star on it also hung from the front window.
Inside, the Tesarsâ€™ refrigerator was covered with picture postcards of Mattâ€™s cousins, some of whom are only a few months old.
â€œIâ€™m not from a family, Iâ€™m from a clan,â€ Matt said as Sue brought out a picture of her family, which consists of Mattâ€™s grandmother, seven aunts and uncles and their spouses, 19 cousins and their 11 children, including Kali.
To make the cookies, everyone sat around the kitchen table measuring ingredients and Matt mixing the batter. After he finished, everyone threw flour on the table so they could roll out the cookies.
For the first batch, they used cookie cutters and placed sprinkles and M&Mâ€™s on top; but for the second batch, they added food coloring to make red and white peppermint candy cane cookies. The peppermint flavoring was strong, causing Matt and Heather to hold their noses and complain about the smell.
During this time, Kali, wearing Elmo slippers she got from her grandma the night before, went out to the front room with Melissa to play with the musical toys on a table. Once she got several of the toys going at the same time by pushing buttons, she started rocking back and forth to the music.
â€œThatâ€™s why theyâ€™re at Grandmaâ€™s,â€ Heather said of the toys.
During the baking and cleanup period, Kali climbed into Mattâ€™s lap and they started playing around and butting heads.
When they see this, Sue and Heather complain Kali will hurt them when she tries doing the same to them.
â€œShe a daddyâ€™s girl,â€ Sue said. â€œShe is going to miss him.â€
Although Mattâ€™s family gathered to celebrate Christmas, they came together again a week before he left to say their goodbyes.
Since family gatherings can reach as many as 50 people, everyone comes to the basement recreation room of grandmother Colleen Wilkinsonâ€™s apartment complex in Brunswick.
Matt said all of his aunts and uncles live in Medina County, including Laurie and Mark Klinect, who grow Christmas trees on their property near Lodi Outlets in Harrisville Township.
Since Matt was not working before Christmas, he helped them out on their farm when he wasnâ€™t watching Kali. He also spent two days before he left volunteering at the Medina Invitational wrestling tournament. A wrestler in high school, it was his main extracurricular activity along with Boy Scouts.
At the farewell gathering, a big-screen TV had the Browns game on and many of the younger people, Matt included, were in the middle of a game of spoons, furiously passing cards around the table.
Colleen, who was sitting on the couch by the TV, was holding her youngest great-granddaughter, who is 3 months old. She said this party had less people than most because several had tickets to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert in Cleveland that evening.
Also not present was Heather, who was home sick with the flu.
When the family gathered around in a circle to say grace before eating, Mark asked the Lord to keep Matt safe during his deployment. After the prayer, Sue started tearing up.
Kali spent the afternoon moving among the relatives when she wasnâ€™t with her daddy.
Sue said they all believe Kali senses Matt is going away because she has become clingy and always wants to know where Daddy is.
â€œShe wants her daddy hugs,â€ Sue said. â€œWhen she is at my house, she never cries, but she started crying and said she wanted her daddy.â€
Also at the party was Mattâ€™s stepgrandmother Ruth Tesar, who married Mattâ€™s grandfather 30 years ago. While talking to her stepson, Will, over dessert, she said she understood what Sue was going through because her son was in the Vietnam War.
Will said he realized why Ruth was scared about her son, but told her Matt was in a different situation.
â€œHeâ€™s not going to a war zone,â€ Will said. â€œI know whereâ€™s heâ€™s going, what heâ€™s doing. Heâ€™s not going to Iraq, heâ€™s going to Kuwait.â€
Medina High Schoolâ€™s Performing Arts Center was filled with families and friends on Jan. 4 for the unitâ€™s formal deployment ceremony. Thirteen members of Mattâ€™s family attended the ceremony.
Wearing a pink â€œDaddyâ€™s Little Sweetheartâ€ shirt, Kali watched the people coming in while the band on stage played patriotic music like â€œStars and Stripes Forever.â€
After the unit marched in across the stage and took their seats, Guard officers, politicians and their representatives gave speeches thanking the unit for their service and wishing members a safe journey. Similar ceremonies were going on all over the state, including two the day before in Sandusky and Piqua and another the next day in Akron.
A highlight of the ceremony for the family was when U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Cleveland, presented a flag to the unit, saying every unit she gave one to had all its members return home safely.
â€œWhen she said that, I was like â€˜You go girl!â€™ â€ said Brenda Wilkinson, Mattâ€™s aunt. â€œThat was when I started crying.â€
After the ceremony, the families gathered to have some snacks and talk to some of the other families, including the Demczyks, who were at the next table. Joe Demczyk was holding his 2-month-old daughter, Abby, while being interviewed by a TV station along with his wife and brother, Andy.
When the interviews were over, Matt, who had Kali on his shoulders, started talking to the brothers and posed for pictures. When Kali got near Abby, she leaned over and kissed her on the nose.
After the ceremony, Matt was free until Saturday night, when he had to report to the readiness center at 9.
Matt said he could barely sleep the last few nights because he was so nervous, not just about leaving, but what he will miss while heâ€™s gone.
â€œI knew Iâ€™d miss stuff when I joined up,â€ he said. â€œI knew someday it was going to happen.â€
Heather said it will take a few weeks to really realize heâ€™s away, because that is usually how long he was gone for summer training.
â€œI get used to life without him here,â€ she said. â€œWeâ€™ll be butting heads when he gets back.â€
Heather, along with Mattâ€™s parents, is active in the unitâ€™s support group, which meets once a month. They helped organize and decorate for the unitâ€™s Christmas party in early December, and will do things throughout the deployment, like making baby baskets for the pregnant wives in the unit.
Heather said members of the support group are mostly parents since many in the unit are young and single.
â€œTo them, itâ€™s almost a reunion,â€ she said, because most of them live in the Medina area and already knew each other from Scouts or sports teams.
In three months, Matt and Heather will reunite for a week when she goes to Fort Hood, where the unit will train before going to Kuwait. Kali will stay home because Heather was told it would be too hard for her to have to say goodbye to Matt again.
â€œItâ€™s easier if Kali says bye-bye once and thatâ€™s it,â€ she said. â€œShe gets mad when he leaves.â€
When Matt started to talk about what may happen to everyone in the year he is away from Medina, Heather held his hand and started tearing up.
â€œI will be leaving everything I have back there for a year,â€ he said. â€œWhoâ€™s going to be around? Whereâ€™s everyone going to be at?â€