Friendship fortified in spite of separation

She thought she knew her daughter. Then her daughter joined the Army.
AUSTINTOWN -- Judy Dolecki doesn't know her daughter anymore.
"We're talking about a little girl who would get a splinter and come crying," Dolecki said of her daughter, Leanne Hale. "My water bill was atrocious. I would do 10 loads of laundry a day!"
"She was so picky about her clothes," Dolecki continued. "Everything had to be perfect."
High school pictures reveal a beautiful young woman with a big smile and bright eyes, highlighted with makeup and perfectly styled hair.
Today, the 5-foot, 3-inch 21-year-old wears the same drab clothes every day. She showers only a couple times a week and can't remember the last time she soaked in a tub. Her hair is hidden much of the time by a cap, and makeup is reserved for special occasions.
This young woman who was once afraid of heights now rappels, drives a fuel truck and carries an M-16 rifle.
"My child is sleeping in a tent!" Dolecki said in disbelief.
"I thought I knew my daughter -- until she joined the Army," Dolecki said.
New direction
Now, the little girl Dolecki reared has become a young woman with a drive and purpose all her own.
PFC Hale is three months into a one-year tour of duty in Iraq. Calling from Camp Cedar in an undisclosed location in Iraq, Hale remembers her mother's reaction when she informed her she was joining the Army.
"I think you're crazy," Hale said with a laugh. "Those were her exact words."
"She said she didn't want to grow up and do nothing," Dolecki recalled, discussing the matter with her daughter, who was 19 at the time.
"It was a hard decision to make," Hale admitted. "But I am really glad that I did. It has been a really good experience."
A waitress before she enlisted, Hale is now a petroleum laboratory technician.
"I test the fuel that is used in trucks and planes," she explained.
"Nobody thought she would make it through boot camp," Dolecki said, describing her daughter as a "sniveling little brat" -- in the most loving kind of way. "But she did make it through. That made me so proud of her."
Mother's battle
Dolecki, however, almost didn't make it through her daughter's being at boot camp.
"I was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Leanne was at boot camp," Dolecki recalled. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments without ever telling her daughter.
"It was the toughest time in her life," Dolecki said, explaining her reasoning. "At times she was sad, and at times she was happy."
"She would call and say, 'Mom, I did it!'" Dolecki said, remembering the sense of achievement her daughter was experiencing during her time at boot camp. "I couldn't take that away from her."
Having conquered boot camp and cancer, both women were not prepared for their latest challenge -- Hale's yearlong deployment overseas.
"We [Dolecki and her husband, Michael] went to Fort Lee in Virginia to see them off," Dolecki said. "I cried the whole way home."
"It's so overly emotional," Dolecki said. "The feelings are so mixed. You want to be mad at somebody for them being over there. Then there is the pride and love that I have for her that is so enormous."
Best of friends
"She is funny, beautiful, and very loving. We are the best of friends," Dolecki said, describing her relationship with her daughter. "She is a good kid. I miss her a lot."
Pausing, she added, "I really miss her."
"My mom is a very smart and intelligent person," Hale said. "I miss her to death. I wish I could be home with her."
The two keep in touch through e-mail.
"Hey Ma. Don't lose any sleep over this." Hale wrote in one e-mail to her mother soon after arriving in Iraq. "I will keep myself occupied on down time and enjoy this truly beautiful country for what it's worth. I almost cried looking at the little children running across the fields to wave to us. Most of the people here are so grateful that they offer you food and gifts for being here and freeing them. It's a truly great experience."
Dolecki gave her daughter a ring before she left for Iraq with the words "Always and Forever" engraved on the inside. Dolecki wears a matching ring on her finger.
It is the one "girlie" item left in Hale's drab garbs. Dolecki knows she's wearing the ring. She has seen it on her daughter's finger from pictures downloaded from a troop Web site on the Internet. It shines against the M-16 she's holding.
"I thought I knew my daughter, until she joined the Army," Dolecki said. "It has made her a better person."

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