Mom and dad off to war - LancasterOnline: News

Mom and dad off to war

A Mount Joy couple will leave behind four children when their unit is sent to Iraq. The military is also their family.

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Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008 12:19 am | Updated: 3:38 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Neill and Kelly Coulbourn got married in a red-white-and-blue-themed ceremony in the backyard of their Mount Joy home this past spring.

By summer's end, they'll be leaving to go to war in Iraq.

The couple expects to deploy overseas after three months of training in New Jersey, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Their path is all the harder because they'll be leaving their four young children behind.

But they say duty is calling them.

"It's what I have to do," said 40-year-old Neill Coulbourn, who elected to stay in the Army after completing his first tour of Iraq duty in late 2005.

He came back vengeful and angry over the deaths of six of his state National Guard unit comrades in bomb attacks.

Now, he says, he just wants to use his combat experience to make sure that his men, most of whom will probably be in their 20s or 30s, return home safely.

Mrs. Coulbourn, a 35-year-old 1992 Donegal High School graduate and career military woman, has not served overseas.

She said she's not looking forward to a year-long separation from her kids – or her new husband.

The Coulbourns say they don't know how much, if at all, they will see each other in Iraq.

Neill Coulbourn, a sergeant, will be a squad leader commanding an armored Stryker vehicle that transports 11 infantryman.

His wife expects to be an administrator at an Army base.

The Coulbourns are among 4,000 Pennsylvania-based Stryker brigade soldiers being mobilized Sept. 19.

"My battalion is actually support for my husband's battalion," Mrs. Coulbourn said. "If anything happens to him or someone else in his unit I'll be one of the first to know."

One big family

Plenty happened to Coulbourn's group the first time around.

Alpha Company, First Battalion, 111th Infantry, reportedly was the hardest hit state Guard unit since World War II.

Coulbourn described being wounded in June 2005 while traveling near Tikrit, Iraq.

An improvised explosive device hit the vehicle ahead of him and drove a chunk of shrapnel into his forearm, he said.

Two months later, six Guard soldiers were killed in the space of a few days.

Coulbourn's psychological scars took longer to mend.

He wears a tattoo with the names of the lost men. He said he doesn't read news about Iraq.

Last year, he checked into the Coatesville Veterans Administration Medical Center for 10 weeks of post traumatic stress disorder therapy.

The Chester County native joined the Guard in 1985 and is now a sergeant.

Until 2007, he said, he was a weekend soldier. He worked as a chef making soups and pastas in Italian restaurants.

He's now on active duty with Bravo Company in the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

He is one of a handful of Alpha Company veterans who signed up for a second tour in Iraq. He spoke candidly about the threats soldiers still face.

"Pretty much everybody over there is at risk" from bombs and mortar attacks, he said.

"My parents aren't thrilled about it," he added, "but I got a job to do."

Mrs. Coulbourn, an only child, also followed a military track.

Her stepfather was in the Navy. Her father, who is deceased, fought in the Vietnam War. He rarely talked about that, she said, but it got her to thinking.

"If they could do it, I could do it."

She enlisted in the Navy in 1992 but switched to the National Guard in 1994.

On active duty since 1995, she said she has worked as a flight operations officer for a Chinook helicopter company and taught a warrior leader course, among other responsibilities.

Her rank is sergeant first class.

"After I had my children," Mrs. Coulbourn said, "I started moving around [to various jobs] and getting promoted."

The couple met in the spring of 2007 at Fort Indiantown Gap, she said.

At that time, she added, they were just friends and did not anticipate deployment as a married couple.

Both had a commitment to military life that they said didn't always go down smoothly with their former partners, they said.

"The Army's like one big family," Mrs. Coulbourn said. "You've got your brothers and sisters and you've got to take care of them."

Mrs. Coulbourn said she knows of other couples heading to Iraq together.

Matt Jones, a public affairs specialist with the Army National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap, said he and his wife are going to war with an aviation unit in January.

"It's not too uncommon for people to deploy together," said Jones, although not all of them have children.

The Coulbourns said their ex-spouses will raise their children over the next year.

Neill Coulbourn has two daughters, Tiani, 12, and Nia, 10.

His wife has two boys, Dylan, 10, and Brandon, who turns 7 today.

Both she and her husband share custody of their children with their ex-spouses, Mrs. Coulbourn said.

"My children have been through a lot in the past year," she said, adding that they are still adjusting to her divorce. "And now I have to leave them for a year."

Letters, e-mails and care packages will keep them connected, she said, but "We're not going to physically be here to kiss them, hug them and see them."

Kelly Coulbourn said she is more concerned about how the kids will fare than about potential danger to herself.

"I'm probably not going to see as much action as Neill would," she said.

She'll pack a gun and wear a uniform. "Every soldier carries a weapon," said Mrs. Coulbourn, who also attended Military Occupational Specialties school to prep for her role in Iraq.

She said she doubts that their assignments will be influenced by the outcome of the presidential election or possible U.S. troop withdrawals.

"The money is already invested," she said. The equipment and the personnel have already been earmarked for the mission.

She and her husband are poised to go.

"I finally found a man that supports me 100 percent," Mrs. Coulbourn said. "We're in the marriage for the long haul. We're definitely in the Army for the long haul."

Jon Rutter is a staff writer for the Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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