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Military Families Face Tough Choices

July 28, 2006

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Michelle Gwin spends most of her time caring for her severely ill 3-year-old daughter, an around-the-clock job that helps keep her mind off something just as worrying: her husband’s military service in Iraq.

``We have bad days, but we try not to have those too often,″ she said by telephone from Durham, N.C., where her daughter, Ashleigh, is being treated for Krabbe disease.

``I believe that God put us on this earth, and he has a time to take us off,″ she said.

In Iraq, 1st Lt. Howard Gwin said he often listens to Martina McBride’s ``In My Daughter’s Eyes″ to remember Ashleigh, his ``princess,″ and the couple’s other daughter, 6-year-old Mackenzie.

``I know that Ashleigh’s in good hands,″ said the 35-year-old Gwin, who arrived in Iraq in April.

For tens of thousands of military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, balancing military and family obligations is tough, but for families such as the Gwins with a severely sick child, it can be excruciating.

Krabbe (pronounced krahb-AY) disease affects about 200 babies a year. It keeps children from producing myelin, a protective covering around the nerves and brain, without which the nerves are raw and eventually die. Children who aren’t treated become irritable, stiff, can’t sit up or walk, and eventually become blind and deaf, then die within two to three years.

Ashleigh had a cord blood transplant but since she wasn’t diagnosed and transplanted until months after birth, severe damage had already been done. Before leaving for Iraq, the Gwins discussed what they wanted to do if her conditioned worsened, including deciding not to put her on a ventilator simply so Howard could return to say goodbye.

``He feels that she knows that he loves her. He said goodbye but hopefully it’s not a final goodbye,″ said Michelle Gwin, 34.

Like the Gwins, from Harrison Township, N.J., others have been forced to consider the same painful scenarios.

Gary J. Holben, from Columbus, Ohio, was a captain in the Army Reserves when his transportation company was sent to Iraq in March 2003. His son Gregory, who was 9 at the time, entered the hospital to treat severe allergies and eczema in October of that year, the same month 27 of the company’s 28 convoys were hit by roadside bombs.

``Unless things were life-threatening with my son, I had to stay because things were definitely life-threatening in Iraq,″ said Holben, who opted to remain with his unit.

Gregory was released from the hospital the following month and was doing much better by the time his father returned from Iraq in April 2004.

Before Michael Boothe left for Iraq with his Kentucky National Guard unit, he knew his 3-year-old daughter Raygan was ill with an Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, meaning she has an enzyme attacking her liver. When doctors who were preparing to biopsy her liver warned she could hemorrhage during the procedure, Boothe’s wife, Sarah, contacted his unit commander and the Red Cross.

``When it became time, they had him home in a matter of days,″ she said.

The biopsy went smoothly and Raygan is now awaiting a liver transplant.

Instead of deploying with his unit to Afghanistan in March 2004, Greg Prichard, a master sergeant in a police company out of Fort Benning, Ga., was in Durham, N.C., taking care of his son Noah, who eventually died from Krabbe disease.

``I would have found it very difficult and would have been very distracted if I would have had to deploy. Noah was so sick and my wife was counting on me to be there,″ Prichard wrote in an e-mail from Iraq, where he’s currently serving.

Michelle Gwin tries not to think about what could happen to her husband, who was very involved in caring for Ashleigh. One benefit of his full-time military service is health insurance that covers many of Ashleigh’s needs not paid for by private insurance.

Last summer, when he first heard his unit might be sent to Iraq, the Gwins discussed whether he should push to be left off the mission because of Ashleigh’s condition. There were no guarantees that he wouldn’t be tapped in the future for another mission. And if he went this time, he’d be able to serve with soldiers he’d trained with for years instead of being with troops he didn’t know.

``Michelle and I both felt that this was the right time,″ he said.


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