The Rev. Raichera McCray pumps her fist in the air as she repeatedly shouts “Hallelujah! Hallelujah Jesus!” Her joy is contagious, and Reid Temple A.M.E. Church in Glenn Dale, Md. has already been primed by the cranberry-robed choir’s song of praise, For Every Mountain. She encourages congregants to have faith whether they have mountains of debt or family drama.

The theme of Rev. McCray’s guest sermon is I’ll Holla If I Want To, drawing from the book of Joshua and her own life.

These days, the 25 year old has a lot to shout about, she says. Just three days earlier, her husband, Ensign Byron McCray, returned home to her and their two babies from Bahrain in the Middle East.

“I thank God for my honey-bunny being back in the States,” Rev. McCray tells the Prince George’s County church on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

The McCrays are among many African-American military families relieved that their loved ones will be home for the holidays — a combination of tours ending in the world’s hot spots, but mostly a result of the end of the 9-year war in Iraq.

American families — and Black families –have experienced monumental stress while trying to cope with fathers and husbands serving in Iraq.

As the conflict in Iraq intensified, Black Americans experienced varying amounts of grief and fear, according to mental health experts. Nobody is unaffected by war. In military families, however, there is the added fear for the safety of loved ones who may be or already have been deployed, as well as the potential challenges of coping as a single parent.

Mental health officials said some men and women who were impacted by the war in Iraq experienced problems that included, difficulty completing tasks, trouble concentrating, fear and anxiety about the future, apathy and emotional numbing, irritability and anger and sadness and depression.

In this time of heightened anxiety over the war with Iraq, mental health experts also say Black children experience fear and anxiety too. They’re seeing news reports and hearing people around them talk about the war and terrorist threats here at home. But unlike adults, children have little experience to help them put this information into perspective.

Whatever their age or relationship to adults who are involved in the war effort, experts say, children need to be able to express their feelings and concerns about the war.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have been welcoming soldiers back home and greeting their families for the holidays.

“Now it is up to us to serve these brave men and women as well as they serve us,” President Obama said in his weekly address, offering the “thanks of a grateful nation” as he made good on a promise made during his inauguration in 2009.

“More than 1.5 million Americans have served there with honor, skill and bravery,” he said of troops in Iraq. “Tens of thousand have been wounded.” The president also praised the families of the 4,500 who made the “ultimate sacrifice.”

Renee Harris of Laurel, Md., misses her cousin, Chief Warrant Officer Richard Bellamy, who has moved back and forth between Afghanistan and a U.S. Army base in Baumholder, Germany. Harris is praying for an end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but welcomed the news of those leaving Iraq. “I was just as happy like it was my family,” she said.

Harris reminisces about Bellamy’s “perfect smile” and laughter when they “crack on each other.” Bellamy is the family magnet who pulls his relatives together for Sunday dinners, cookouts and other gatherings when he’s home in Washington, D.C.

Bellamy talked about the importance of family in a phone call from overseas. “You try to get family time when you can get it,” said Bellamy, who missed out on key moments being in the military but now has his immediate family in Germany: his wife, Sherrie, sons, Kenyatta, 13, and Keyshawn, 10, and daughter, Layla, 4, who he saw briefly two-and-a-half months after she was born. “It feels like I’m still getting to know my baby girl.”

Despite the sacrifices and long days, Bellamy said, “I know that we are making a difference.”

McCray, who works on ships as a diesel mechanic and welder, has had similar experiences. A reservist now on active duty, he has served in Iraq, Kuwait, Germany and Italy as well as Bahrain. McCray witnessed the birth of year-old Byron Jr., but he just happened to be home on leave when his daughter, Skylar Alyse, was born two years ago. Then his two-week leave was suddenly cut short to five days.

He hasn’t been home for a full year of his three-year marriage, but he and his wife are making up for lost time. The McCrays celebrated Thanksgiving with their families in South Carolina, but they plan to spend a quiet Christmas, home alone in Maryland.

 

Yanick Rice Lamb

Special to the AFRO