Elkhart mom worries over U.S. Marine son assigned to strife-torn South Sudan
ELKHART — When news emerged last December of civil strife and a coup attempt in South Sudan, it put Shannon Gage on edge.
"I was just like, what? What's going on? I was a little freaked out," she said.
South Sudan, a hardscrabble central African country formed in 2011 after those living there voted to secede from Sudan, probably doesn't register high on the radar screens of many in Elkhart County. It's a poor, dry country of mud huts and tin-roofed structures where the motorized traffic consists largely of motorbikes, as Gage puts it.
But for the Elkhart woman, the reports of strife and violence hit too close to home and the evolving situation has prompted a roller coaster of emotions. Her son, Larry Gage, 21 and a 2011 Penn High School grad, is a U.S. Marine corporal assigned since last September to the U.S. Embassy in the new nation's capital, Juba.
It helped a few days after the violence began when her son called, saying he was OK. A little, anyway. "I've been in a war zone for the past few days," he told his mom, describing the sight of tracers flying across the Juba sky as South Sudanese government forces and rebels clashed.
Then the stay-at-home grandma lost touch, another relative who had kept contact via Facebook lost touch and reports emerged of new violence. She read an Associated Press newspaper article in late December that reported 1,000 dead in the conflict and warned of more fighting. Though the sides — forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, on the one hand, and former Vice President Riek Machar, on the other — had apparently agreed to a "cessation of hostilities," her fears returned.
"I was worried sick about that," Gage said, seated at the kitchen table in her northern Elkhart home, pictures of her son flashing by on a digital frame. "Every little thing that I'd read, I'd really worry."
The United States isn't any sort of target in the conflict and the news agency Reuters talks of a "shaky ceasefire" in the nation. More significantly, Gage heard from her son once more last Saturday, calming her jittery nerves. He's maintained an even keel through it all.
'VERY STRESSFUL AS A PARENT'
Whatever the case, it's an unstable situation. And it shows that for moms like Shannon Gage and dads like Larry Gage, the Marine's father, places like Afghanistan aren't the only zones where a U.S. service member can be in harm's way. Being the parent of a Marine or anyone else in the military can be tough business.
"I'd definitely rather him be back home," said Shannon Gage. Marine portraits of Larry Gage and her younger son, Jody Gage, who's a Marine based in Pensacola, Fla., adorn her living room wall.
Even Okinawa in Japan, one of her elder boy's previous assignments before South Sudan, would be better.
The elder Larry Gage, divorced from Shannon Gage and living in Osceola, recalled the bits and pieces of news that came out as violence surged in South Sudan. "When you hear about rebels, you think about a bunch of roughnecks who don't care about nothing or nobody," he said.
Even now, with a cease-fire of sorts in place, Larry Gage the father, who works at Lippert Components in Goshen, isn't completely at ease. "It's very stressful as a parent because it's your kid," he said.