Jaylynn Parcel’s Thanksgiving plans are not like they were a year ago, when distance and duty separated her from family.
In mid-November of 2015, she and others from the Montana Army National Guard arrived at a military base in southern Afghanistan. It’s one of the larger bases, she said, although she couldn’t disclose its exact location.
When it came time to go for the Thanksgiving dinner that the base provided, a line of people waiting for seating wrapped around the building. Rather than join them, Parcel and some friends opted instead for a nearby restaurant. Their Thanksgiving Day dinner was pizza.
She had a Hawaiian pizza, and it actually tasted like pizza.
“It wasn’t the best pizza but it was definitely pizza. Whereas some places,” she explained, “they would call something pizza that was not.”
That night, four-star Gen. Frank J. Grass met with National Guard members at the base who numbered less than 75. They had an hour of his time to talk and ask questions before making a holiday video with him.
“I thought it was pretty special, especially that he took the time to have a question and answer session with us,” said Parcel, who holds the rank of captain.
A 4 a.m. call home, her time zone is about 10 ½ hours ahead of Montana, allowed her to be part of the family celebration.
“We talked about how everything was going, how they were. We talked about what I’d done for Thanksgiving, for that day and what they were all having to eat,” she said.
Even still, it wasn’t really the same.
“It’s difficult being away,” she explained.
Today, Parcel, 34, lives in Helena. She works at Fort Harrison as the budget officer, and this Thanksgiving Day she’ll be spending time with family in Fairfield and Great Falls.
Shopping on Black Friday is also part of her plans, although she won’t be one of the early shoppers.
“Just want to see what bargains there are,” Parcel added.
During her time in Afghanistan, she kept in touch with her mother, Vicky Miller, and her step-father Mick Miller using a video chat app every couple of days and telephoned her father, Tim Parcel, and step-mother Lynne, about as often. They worried about her.
“They didn’t say much, but you could just tell by their voices that they were worried, wanted me to come home, be done,” she said.
Only once did gunfire from an attack cause her alarm.
“Something that just kind of ended up coming our way,” she said of the incident that occurred outside of the base where she was stationed. Her unit took shelter inside of a building and dressed in helmets and vests for protection. Alarms at other times proved unfounded.
Heritage and tradition
Parcel grew up in Fairfield. In high school, she was on the Eagles’ basketball team where she played post. She participated in track where she competed in discuss, the javelin and shot put.
She was a member of the National Honor Society, on the student council and a Girls State delegate. Pep Club and band also filled her days.
Military service, however, was a family heritage.
“My grandpa (Louie Van Setten) was in the Korean War,” she said. An infantryman, maybe. Her step-father and brother were in the Montana Air National Guard.
“Tradition in my family,” Parcel said.
Her parents also taught her to respect other people, values she said are similar to those of the Army.
Her grandmother, Betty Van Setten, was her hero. She had more energy than anyone Parcel had ever met and put others first in her life. Selfless-service was Parcel’s view of her.
Parcel arrived at Carroll College in 2001 after graduating high school and as the college was reinstating its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
She graduated Carroll with a degree in chemistry for secondary education. ROTC helped pay for her education and provided her with a path to the Army National Guard.
The ROTC program was enjoyable, she said. Hers was a small class of perhaps six or seven, nearly equally divided between men and women.
The opportunities that military life offered her are part of what’s kept her in uniform for 10 years with the National Guard after two years with ROTC. Travel and educational opportunities and job experiences have further cemented her interest in a career she said she plans to keep.
Parcel arrived in Afghanistan via Kuwait roughly a year ago with the Montana Army National Guard’s 190th forward logistics unit, a part of its Combat Sustainment Support Battalion based in Billings.
She remembers her arrival after a long night of travel – most of it spent waiting for a flight with others in her group. The orange glow of runway lighting greeted them from the darkness, as did the growl of passing vehicles once they arrived and the pounding of helicopters overhead.
A bus ferried them to the building where they were assigned rooms. None missed this opportunity for sleep. In the morning, they met the unit that was departing and whose roles they would fill.
Parcel was in charge of maintenance and tracked all of the vehicle parts that arrived. Some 60 military units in southern Afghanistan relied upon the base for these parts.
She was the liaison between those units and the contractors who supplied the parts. From her desk also came the paperwork that told contractors what was needed from them.
Each shift was 10 or 12 hours and her days began at 7 a.m. or a little later. She had Sunday mornings off. Even still, every day was a work day.
But hers wasn’t a job devoted entirely to the inside an office. Parcel’s unit was responsible for a sector of the base. Checks on that sector took her across the base in a vehicle she roughly compared to a Toyota 4Runner.
Dusty and sandy are words she uses to describe life on base where she lived primarily for better than eight months. One day would be completely clear and the next day light tan dust would obscure the world 20 feet from where she stood.
There were but few trees, and the only time the landscape was green was during the spring when rain gave life to weeds that grew from the harsh landscape.
“Everything’s either asphalt, concrete or rocks,” she said.
The base pulsed with life.
“I don’t remember it ever being really quiet. There was always some kind of noise,” she said.
She paused before recalling the sound of helicopters and that of vehicles en route to destinations. Voices from conversations were a constant part of the backdrop. Languages of foreign soldiers mixed with that of those who spoke English.
The base where she was stationed “was nothing like Montana,” she said.
When her unit departed Afghanistan in late July, the temperature was rising to the 115-degree mark.
Time for thanks
The importance of having the chance to be with people you enjoy, family and friends, and to be able to celebrate together isn’t lost on Parcel, who is looking forward to this Thanksgiving.
Some people do take this for granted, she said. Others don’t.
“They know they’re lucky to be able to have that time with their family.”
Being in Afghanistan took away from her things she would do for herself, such as cooking and shopping for groceries. It also meant she couldn’t bake, which she enjoys. Sharing those baked goods, especially bread and cookies, with others is important to her as well.
Despite the changes required of those who are deployed, her years in the Army National Guard leave her to conclude that she feels “pretty blessed.”
She’s had a lot of good experiences wearing the uniform, she said, and it’s paid off her college costs plus allowed her to travel and learn new skills.
Parcel helped to create an Army maintenance company of some 150 people in Billings and rose from its executive officer to its commander.
“That was pretty special,” she said.
And even though she said she can’t change the oil in a vehicle, she can manage the supply of maintenance parts and ensure the military units get those that they need.
There’s no hesitation about whether she would give up the comforts of home for the demands of seven-day work weeks and a 20-day rotation of meals that would come with another deployment.
“If I’m asked to, I will,” she said.