see your soldier

Charlie and Janet Graul from Rossville look over a photo of their son Jason, a Marine in Iraq.

The Charlie Graul family of Rossville kept up a brave front when they saw a larger-than-life image of their soldier son on the big screen. But when the event was over, the tears flowed.

“I wanted to be strong for him, but another part was hurting,” Charlie said. “We didn’t cry in front of him.”

Nine family members and friends gathered earlier this month at the University of Illinois to communicate via satellite with Marine Sgt. Jason Graul, stationed in Iraq.

Across the state, families gathered at 17 sites for private, interactive 30-minute real-time videoconferencing sessions in which they could see and talk with their soldiers stationed at Camp Al Asad or Camp Taji/Cooke in Iraq.

Charlie and Janet Graul were thrilled to see their son, who has been in Iraq since August. He works at the base as a technician who examines parts of airplanes and helicopters to see if they’re cracked or faulty.

Jason, who will be 27 in February, looked good, his parents said.

“It was good to see him, and he was glad to be able to do that,” Janet said. “Being able to see his face is good.”

The Grauls are grateful to Jason’s friend, Chaz Hinkle, a former Danville resident now studying at the U of I. Hinkle and Jason were in the same platoon in boot camp.

Hinkle heard about the See Your Soldier program and e-mailed his friend’s father about it. Charlie jumped on the idea and e-mailed Jason about participating. When Jason agreed, his parents contacted the U of I and made the arrangements.

They gathered friends and family members for the 30-minute session. They used microphones set up around the table and watched Jason on a huge screen. In Iraq, Jason saw smaller versions of his family on a laptop. It was 12:40 a.m. in Iraq, which was during Jason’s regular shift, and late afternoon in Illinois.

When Jason appeared on the screen, he had a big smile.

But his family was suddenly speechless.

“We see him … but don’t know what to say,” Charlie said with a laugh.

They chitchatted about day-to-day things, including the weather. Jason, who’s based in Hawaii, said it was “cold” in Iraq — in the 40s at night.

He also said he keeps busy non-stop, works out in the gym and shares sweets from home with his buddies. He said a church had sent him a Christmas tree, which he set up.

The family members took turns talking to him. A sister, Dara Catron of Rossville, hesitated because she was afraid she’d cry, her parents said. Another sister, Keren Frederick, lives in North Carolina.

They also connected him via cell phone with his wife, Jenny, who is in Hawaii.

At the end, the family sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” but stumbled over the words to the second verse. Jason enjoyed it anyway and clapped for them.

“We’re grateful for the people who set it up,” Charlie said.

“Thanks to Chaz, who let us know about it,” Janet added.

A 1998 graduate of Rossville-Alvin High School, Jason attended Danville Area Community College for a semester before joining the service. He will be promoted to staff sergeant Jan. 1 and expects to return to the United States in March.

The Grauls said he keeps in touch through e-mail and phone calls. Last April, he and his sister, Keren, surprised the family by showing up for a visit.

Charlie, a retired math teacher at Bismarck-Henning High School, now works as a part-time pastor at the Cissna Park and Rankin United Methodist churches. Janet is a teaching associate at the DACC Child Development Center.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Jason was sent to Afghanistan on an aircraft carrier. During that time, Charlie was moved to write poetry called “For My Son.”

Part of one poem reads: “My son held the flag the firemen put up. Sometimes we’re forced to drink from the bitter cup. But when it comes to freedom, we never must give up.”

December’s event was the third See Your Soldier gathering. It also was offered December 2005 and last July.

Nancy Komlanc, coordinator of the program, said 340 family members and friends from around the state — and adjoining states — gathered earlier this month to participate; about 50 soldiers were involved. Also participating were a family from Indiana, several from Iowa and one from Missouri.

FYI

The next See Your Soldier event will be in July. Details will be released in June. For more information, visit http://www.seeyoursoldier.uiuc.edu.