It's been nearly a year?#34;an eventful year?#34;since I talked to Zachary Bokum's parents, John and Maggy Bokum. As an 18-year-old senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2002, Zach signed up with the Illinois National Guard, figuring it would help pay for college and be good experience for his criminal justice studies at Western Illinois University. A weekend a month and two months in the summer for six years seemed like a fair deal.
But President Bush had other ideas, and a year ago, Zach joined the large number of National Guard members called to active duty. (According to John, 40 to 45 percent of the troops in Iraq are in the National Guard and Reserves, as compared to 5 percent in Vietnam). In January, Zach's unit was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, where they were trained as military policemen, and by the end of February they were stationed in Germany. Zach's in Kitzingen, just outside of Wuerzburg in the middle of the southern part of the country.
"He's doing fine now," reports his dad. "It took him a couple of months to get adjusted to being so far away, in a foreign country."
In response to my questions, Zach wrote in a Dec. 21 e-mail, "Everybody here misses home a lot, and we all help each other to keep our morale up. We love what we do, and we just can't wait to come home in March."
His work, he writes, ranges from dealing with soldiers who've lost their IDs to those who drive drunk or have serious traffic accidents. And, of course, there's plenty of paperwork.
And his parents? "We're doing fine too. Thank God he's in Germany. My wife has had more anxious moments," says John, adding that he was comforted by knowing there would be combat zone training if Zach's unit was destined for Iraq. Since that didn't happen, he figured Iraq wasn't in the cards, at least for now.
This was Zach's first Christmas away from home. "I've had one or two times I've cried" about that, says Maggy. "Zach is my traditional child, the one who'd put the lights on the tree and set up the train."
She has a collection of about 25 nutcrackers that she always brings out for Christmas, but not this year. "I'm protesting. They'll be back when Zach's back," she says.
He'll also celebrate his 21st birthday away from home, on Jan. 25.
Although nothing seems to go as planned in the military, Zach should be back in Oak Park in the spring. He hopes to return to school next fall, but he'll still have a year of active duty eligibility left, and three more years on his National Guard commitment, so there's still plenty of reason for concern.
"Iraq hangs over our head," admits John. "He's trained as an MP and could go anywhere."
Zach was home on leave for 10 days in August, so he and John were able to go on their annual father-son fishing trip. "It was good for everybody to see him, and for him to recharge his batteries," says John.
He's able to call about once a week and e-mail a little more frequently, and he's in pretty constant communication with his siblings and friends in Oak Park. His sister Heidi went to Germany for a visit last April.
Maggy and relatives of other local kids who've been deployed have talked about forming a support group. There are at least 10 families in Oak Park who've expressed an interest in joining, she says. They marched in the Fourth of July parade, and may try to get organized after the first of the year.
"It's helpful to have someone to talk with who really understands," explains Maggy. "[Zach's] not in the line of fire. But every day there's more violence, more boys killed. He could come home and be redeployed. It happens to a lot of units."
Zach's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "He loves to hear" from folks at home, says John. "It's great support."