Special Reports

Like the last day of school

Staff Sgt. Ron Eckley of Burley is happy. He's Christmas Eve happy, last-day-of-school happy. He's going on leave for 15 days starting Thursday.

He found out about two weeks ago his leave dates were approved. The 116th is trying to give all its 4,000 members two weeks' leave -- and air fare home -- although there's no guarantee on the dates. Leave dates can change at the last minute.

"The last couple weeks have been going slow," he said. "I'm looking forward to going. But I'm not looking forward to saying goodbye again."

He hasn't been home since November. His 12-year-old daughter, Katelyn doesn't know he's coming (so no one tell her!).He surprised her in November by showing up at her school classroom unannounced.

"It worked out pretty good," he said. "It was an emotional moment. She just started crying and gave me a big hug and wouldn't let go."He plans to spend a couple days alone with his wife, Jamie, then spend the rest of the time with his family, which also includes 5-year-old son, Coby, and 1-year-old Zane.

"I'm not sure the youngest one remembers me," Eckley said.

He doesn't know his exact itinerary, but he thinks he will fly from Iraq to Kuwait, then to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Dallas, then to Boise, and, finally, on to Twin Falls.

Travel time doesn't count against leave. It doesn't start until midnight the day he arrives, so his 15-day leave will mean up to another 10 days of travel.

Eckley will have between six and eight months left in Iraq when he gets back.

"I think it will sail by. We've been in country since December and it's gone pretty fast between now and he said. "But I'm sure the last couple months are going to drag."

-- Roger Phillips

Although I’ve been in Iraq as a photographer less than a week, I’ve already started anticipating the way children will clamor at me. So when a little boy approached me Wednesday, I was prepared to show him my cameras or have him ask me to take his picture.

I wasn’t prepared for a moment of magic. And I didn’t even think to photograph it!

I was with some soldiers from Bravo Company who were getting out of the vehicles at a hospital in Kirkuk to deliver toys. I was taking out my earplugs and getting my camera gear ready.

Anyway, this tiny boy — he must have been 2 or 3 — and his dad came walking up to say hello to the soldiers. When the little guy sees me, he rips his hand away from his dad and runs over to me.

Instead of what kids usually do, though, he reached up to me. In his hand was a bunch of little yellow flowers he must have just picked from the grass. And he handed them to me.

I was so stunned, I didn’t know how to react. It was so sudden and quick — almost magical — all I could do is say “Thank you.” Just as quickly he turned and ran back to his dad and they walked away.

My jaw dropped and my eyes teared up and all I could do was stand there and stare. It didn't even occur to me to shoot his photograph.

I think it was about the coolest and most touching thing that has ever happened to me. I will never forget it.

-- Kim Hughes