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Bella English

Helping military families celebrate the season

Darren Woolf, 51, and his son Michael, 25, are both serving in Afghanistan with the 181st Engineer Company.

Darren Woolf, 51, and his son Michael, 25, are both serving in Afghanistan with the 181st Engineer Company.

Denise Woolf remembers the birthday parties she and her husband would throw for their sons at the Bridgewater Armory, where Darren Woolf was the armorer. They’d set up tents and cots, and the kids and their friends would get to look in the vault, where all the weapons were kept. “They just loved it,” says Woolf, who lives in Randolph.

Her oldest son knows every word of “Commando” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and when he was in the third grade he wrote for a class assignment that he wanted to be “an Army guy and a police officer” when he grew up.

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Michael is 25 years old now, a Randolph police officer who is currently serving in Afghanistan. At 19, he’d joined the National Guard while at Massasoit Community College. “Don’t worry,” he told his mother. “The recruiter said my unit won’t get deployed.”

Six months later, Michael was in Iraq. When he came home a year later, he returned to school to study criminal justice. In July 2011, he joined the Randolph Police Department.

Three months ago, he and his father deployed together to Afghanistan, with the 181st Engineer Company out of Camp Edwards on Cape Cod. They’ll be gone a year. They aren’t in the same platoon and so don’t see each other much.

Darren Woolf, 51, owns a custom copper and slate construction business in Randolph. With 24 years in the National Guard, he’s a Sergeant First Class and an Army engineer. Michael clears IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, the largest killer of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He drives this vehicle called a Buffalo,” his mother says. “They detonate the roadside bombs.” She pulls up a photo on her phone, and there’s Michael in uniform, nearly dwarfed by the Buffalo, which fills the entire screen. He had the same job in Iraq and received the Combat Action Badge.

People ask her which is harder, having a husband or son deployed. (They must be men asking, because every woman knows the answer.) “It’s harder having a child deployed,” she says.

It’s the young soldiers who are being killed, Woolf says, because they’re the ones doing the most dangerous missions. Even those who aren’t physically injured bear scars. “I don’t think any young soldier who goes over comes back quite the same,” she says.

She tries not to worry about her boys over there. There are two more kids to care for: daughter Devin is 20 and a junior at Elmira College; Darren Jr. is 16 and a junior at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton.

Woolf keeps her sanity by keeping busy. No, she doesn’t watch the television series “Army Wives,” despite friends’ recommendations. “I’m living that life,” she says.

Immersing herself in a cause close to her heart helps her cope. She runs the Family Readiness Group for the 181st Engineer Company, which provides support for soldiers’ families.

Woolf and her elves recently threw a Christmas party at Camp Edwards for 130 families, with Santa and gifts and catered food. The biggest surprise? The Skype calls the group had set up between families and their deployed soldiers.

Woolf has been busy “adopting out” some of the families for their holiday needs; an individual or group agrees to take care of a family’s Christmas wish list. Woolf, a warm and energetic woman, smiles and her green eyes glow as she describes the generosity she has encountered.

At a Halloween party for children of the deployed soldiers, an Army wife mentioned that her husband was “freezing over there.” The unit commander’s wife confirmed that the men had a shortage of pillows and blankets.

The Family Readiness Group started a pillow and blanket drive. Within three weeks, they had collected 300 of each, packed them into 30 boxes and even had a donation to cover the high shipping costs.

Woolf and others will gather at Lombardo’s in Randolph Sunday for the 6th Annual Holiday Party for Military Families thrown by the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation. The foundation is headed by Coombs’s widow, Christie, who was left with three young children when he was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.

“We hope to give the families a happy distraction from the sadness of facing the holidays without their loved one,” says Coombs. “Being with others who understand can bring some joy to a difficult time of year.”

When our men and women serve, it’s also their families who serve and sacrifice in their own way. I don’t know how mothers and wives and fathers and husbands and siblings and children breathe when their loved ones are in harm’s way.

People like Denise Woolf are a model of strength and capability, and there are so many like her holding down the fort at home. Woolf believes everything happens for a reason, that her husband’s first deployment, 18 months in Kosovo five years ago, helped prepare her for his and Michael’s joint departure to Afghanistan in September.

When Darren left for Kosovo, “anything that could go wrong went wrong,” she says. Their daughter, then 14, spiked a fever of 104 and underwent months of testing before doctors performed emergency gall-bladder surgery. When Denise sent a message through the Red Cross to her husband, a message came back from his commander: Darren was in Germany having his own emergency surgery for a burst appendix.

Then Michael, not yet 20, got his orders to go to Iraq. Next, Darren Jr. was tackled hard in a football game and had to have his gall bladder removed. Because of complications, he remained hospitalized for 10 days.

While she was at his bedside at Tufts Medical Center, Woolf got a call that her car alarm was blasting in the parking garage. She rushed downstairs to find her windows smashed, her car ransacked, and her GPS gone.

Now her younger son is telling his mother he wants to join the military. “He wants to do basic training this summer so once he graduates from high school, he can ship right out,” says Woolf.

So far, it’s two against two: She and her daughter are against it, while Darren Sr. and Michael support it.

What did she tell her son? “That we’d talk about it after the holidays,” she says.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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