When you have a soldier in Iraq, the last thing you want to hear is the phone ringing at 4 a.m. But when Alicia Olson answered in the wee hours of Dec. 5, suddenly it was Christmas morning. “Mom,” said her son, “I’m coming home.”

Seamus Joyce, 22, is a small arms and artillery repair specialist at a large base outside Baghdad. Deployed in June, he didn’t expect to return home for a visit until February. But his sergeant came in one day in November and offered him an early leave. He kept it secret at first, and then decided to call just before he left. He didn’t want to get home to an empty house. (Alicia works as an insurance agent in the city.)

“That was my Christmas,” she says of the phone call. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was teasing me – just playing with Mama’s heartstrings. Then I got really excited.”

He arrived on Dec. 8.

Different home, familiar luck

“Home,” however, on 200 block of S. Taylor was a house Seamus had never seen before. He knew a house on the 300 block of Cuyler, the one his family had been renting since they moved to Oak Park in 2006. At that point, Seamus had just graduated from West Chicago Community High School. Alicia’s husband had had health problems, which led to financial problems, and they’d lost their home. They found an affordable house to rent in Oak Park. She felt blessed. “That block was so warm and welcoming,” she says.

But, a few months after Seamus joined the Army, there was an electrical fire there. He was in Maryland at the time, where he’d been sent to take train in small arms repair. On March 23, the night before he was to fly to Fort Hood, Texas, he got word of the fire. Everyone was safe, but his pet lizard, Goliath, and two turtles in the basement couldn’t be rescued. The next day, it turns out, Goliath and the turtles were found alive. Alicia says that, after nursing the lizard back to health, they renamed him Phoenix.

Maybe some of Seamus’s luck rubbed off on him.

All four of Alicia’s kids were born prematurely, but Seamus, she says, had the most health problems early on. Born 10 weeks early, he spent weeks on a ventilator; doctors predicted brain damage. But at 5 pounds, 13 ounces, he was hardier than the one-pounders he shared the neo-natal unit. (Nurses nicknamed him Shamu.) He survived with no adverse effects.

At age 4, he was run over by a riding lawnmower. Again, he survived. But the encounter left a large scar on his back. (Sometimes, says Alicia, they’d tell people he’d been attacked by a shark.)

“He’s my miracle baby,” she says.

Lucky or not, she wasn’t thrilled when he announced his decision to enter the Army.

“I knew there were wars going on, and I’m the boy’s mom. I worked extra hard to get him here.” Her dad had spent 27 years in the Navy, and Seamus had always been interested in pursuing a military career. She didn’t try to talk him out of it.

Early deployment

While the family was settling into the new home on S. Taylor, Seamus was settling in at Fort Hood. He expected to be deployed this February, but the 615th Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division – which had deployed to Iraq in April – needed a weapons repairman. Seamus was assigned, ending up overseas before he expected. When the shootings took place at Fort Hood this fall, his mom for the first time had a reason to feel happy about the early deployment.

Seamus said he was nervous, but also excited, about going. The first adjustment was the heat (104 degrees the day he arrived). “That was an experience,” he recalls.

Then there was the noise. “Depending how close you are, artillery going off will shake the ground and shake your building.”

But the biggest change was the culture. He really hasn’t been outside the base, but he’s met local residents who work there. “It makes you thankful you live where you live,” he says. “They don’t have a great life.”

Life on the base isn’t bad, according to Seamus. Most soldiers have laptops and he gets Internet connection from his room. He can make calls home through Skype. You can buy pretty much anything (including his laptop) at the PX, which he likens to “a little Wal-Mart.”

They have a gym and plenty of organized sports (Seamus’s company just won the camp flag football tournament). The base is so big (at least 30 miles in diameter, he estimates) he can take his 5-ton truck out for a drive, except during the rainy season (right now) when the roads get pretty soggy. You have to contend with flies and camel spiders, and he’s had to take a socket wrench to a couple of sand vipers.

He loves his job, but it was stressful at first because, fresh out of school, he was the only repairman in his brigade. His is an aviation unit, so he works on machine guns mounted on helicopters. There’s also an infantry unit that goes out on patrols, so he tends to their guns, too. He eventually found people in other units with expertise he could fall back on.

Reconnecting

What he misses most is family. “I miss my dog,” he says, referring to a large collie named Lassie. “I miss my home. I miss being able to go home, to just be at home.” In spite of electronic connections, Seamus says, “you’re going to be homesick no matter what.”

After sleeping off the jet lag, he took his girlfriend to Second City. He also added to his tattoo collection – a biblical psalm about battle now adorns his rib cage, complementing a Celtic cross on his back.

But what he has enjoyed most since returning is just sitting around and talking. “You really can’t do that over there. You’ve always got ‘hard time.’ That’s what we call it. You’ve got to be here. Your next hard time is 1300 [hours]. You’re always doing something.”

His unit’s deployment lasts 12 months, so he’ll be back stateside in April. Then they’ll have at least a year before they’re eligible to be re-deployed. Afghanistan is a possibility. His enlistment runs until March 2012, at which point he’ll decide whether to re-up.

“If it wasn’t for deployments,” he says, “I’d have no trouble going 20 years. When you’re back in the States, it’s a great, great life.”

The family celebrated Christmas last Saturday because as the Army giveth, the Army also taketh away. His orders are to fly out on Christmas Eve. So on Christmas Day, he’ll either be on an airplane or in Kuwait, following an 18-hour flight (plus layovers).

“I’m just grateful for the time I got,” Seamus said Friday.

“We were so lucky and blessed to have him come home,” said his mom. “You get no choices in the Army.”

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