By Shelley Grieshop
Julie McKibben dodged mortar rounds in Iraq as a physician with the U.S. Navy, but her greatest challenge may have been her return home in September.
As the 29-year-old Rockford native reunited with her husband and toddler at their home in South Carolina, she says she felt like a third wheel.
"While away, I changed to fit in my environment and my family changed to deal with me being gone," says McKibben, who now works as a general medical officer at Parris Island, a military training facility.
Her husband, Coldwater native Shane McKibben, a teacher and baseball coach at Beaufort Academy, quit the teaching portion of his job and became full-time daddy and sole parent to the couple's 15-month-old daughter, Nancy Taylor.
"We (he and Julie) both felt it would be difficult enough for our daughter to miss her mom, so we decided that she wasn't going to miss her dad all day also," he says. It was daddy who got acquainted with Barney, read Golden Books and tucked little "N.T." snugly into bed at night, while mom developed a rough-around-the-edges demeanor as a doctor at war with the Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 of Beaufort.
In an effort to keep mommy around, the couple pre-recorded videos of Julie reading stories that were later played and replayed to their daughter. The little girl nightly clutched a specially created photo album with pictures of her and her mother.
"I'd talk to (my daughter) every day about what her mom was doing and that she'd be home soon," Shane McKibben says, adding the couple even set up a Web camera so Julie could see her little girl during the long seven months away.
Shane McKibben also had trouble coping at times, like when his wife described in detail the frequent attacks on her base.
"I had to digest this information on my way to coaching baseball. I remember getting her letter about running for cover because of missile attacks and I was, at the time, worrying about who my starting pitcher was going to be that day," he recalls. "It really put things into perspective."
According to the Department of Defense, about one in seven U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq are women -- many of those are mothers who traded in their nurturing roles to carry arms for their country.
For her recent service, Julie McKibben was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, Sea Service Deployment ribbon and Unit Coin for Excellence, among others.
Sending women into dangerous war zones has long been a controversial issue; more than two dozen women have died so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For Julie McKibben, a 1993 Parkway High School graduate and daughter of Jerry and Sally Jo Bolenbaugh of Rockford, the war was an eye-opener. When she joined the Navy in 1997, she never dreamed she'd be sent so far away, sleeping on a mattress in a small aluminum cubicle with fine sand in "every space you can imagine."
"I wore 35 pounds of armor whenever I walked around," she says, adding her uniform was always long sleeves and pants, even in the 120-degree climate.
Coming home also put her on a guilt trip, she says.
"It was very overwhelming to have everything I needed easily accessible like a shower, cell phone, computer, toilet, groceries, car ... It was almost like it was too easy and I didn't deserve it," she explains. "I had tremendous guilt for being home in luxury while I knew other troops were living in what I left -- hell."
She supervised the medical care of more than 5,500 Marines and Sailors on the Al Asad Airbase in Iraq from February to September, treating them for a variety of ailments. Most of her work kept her on the base, but no place in Iraq was a safe zone, she says.
"There was always the threat of insurgents attacking the base and jumping the fence line so you always wore your weapon, a 9mm pistol for officers and an M-16 rifle for Marines ... while looking for anything out of the ordinary," she says.
Part of her unit's mission was to spread goodwill and they did that by doing humanitarian work with the help of an interpreter. They provided the Iraqi people water, basic medical supplies like Tylenol and multivitamins, as well as toothbrushes and toothpaste.
"The people mainly wanted basic things like running water, paved roads and electricity -- things that were promised to them by Saddam back in 1993," she says.
McKibben says it was a long seven months away from her family and she knows she missed a portion of her daughter's life she can never get back. But she saw progress in Iraq and feels the invasion by troops was necessary.
"Our mission to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people was absolutely the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it comes at a very high cost," she says. "And unfortunately, many families without members in the military take their everyday freedoms for granted and only see a glimpse of our mission, struggle and fighting on the nightly news."