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A heart in the home

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By John Herndon

No one could blame Carolyn Barnes if she just sits back, props her feet and enjoys life again.

She's finally home.

And as Mother's Day approaches, the Lawrenceburg resident is loving every moment of her new assignment of just being a wife, mom and grandmother.

A nurse in the Army reserves, Carolyn Barnes ended an assignment of more than 2 years to Fort Dix, N.J. in January amid tears, laughter and a welcome home party a month later.

While it is always possible to be called back to active duty, chances are that her days away from home are over.

"I don't know how to explain it. It just feels great to be home," she says.

Most would understand.

While living not far from New York City, Mrs. Barnes missed the birth of two grandchildren, had to endure her husband's kidney transplant and made an emergency trip home when her father, Bill Ockerman, died nearly a year ago.

"She has very, very strong faith," says her son, L.W., the baseball coach at Anderson County High Schoo. "She has been through so much and I think she is just enjoying time with her family now."

Whether it is seated along the first base line watching her son try to guide his team to its first regional championship in 5 years or taking in a recreation league game for one of her 4 grandchildren, Carolyn Barnes is making the most of it.

She's philosophical about the last two years, saying, "I didn't have to go to Iraq, so we were fortunate." But those closest to the Frankfort native say there is more to the story. Much more.

Mrs. Barnes joined the Army reserves as a nurse when she was 37 after hearing a recruiting pitch to her oldest son, P.D. While her son opted to attend Virginia Military Institute and later joined the Marines, Carolyn cast her lot with the Army. Two months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"What scared me was that I had an aunt who died with breast cancer when I was 18. She was in her early 40's," Carolyn said.

"Back then, that was a death sentence," remembers Shannon, who was in middle school at the time. "I remember I cried and cried."

P.D. said he was not going to VMI and L.W., a sophomore in high school, was scared.

"I was determined to beat it," Carolyn says before smiling. "I had too much to do with the kids."

During the six months of chemotherapy, Carolyn remembers going to hear an evangelist in Frankfort during lunch time one day and being told, "You were near death and you are not over it."

"They prayed for me," she says before adding, "I have been cancer-free for 20 years."

But her first major deployment came with Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, meaning she would miss L.W.'s senior year at Anderson County.

She had been there 3 years earlier when P.D was at second base and L.W. played third as the Bearcats won their first district championship in 12 years. But in L.W.'s final year of high school, he was put under the microscope, first as what many thought was an undersized quarterback - at 5-foot-7, he led the football Bearcats to a 9-2 season - then moving into an already small basketball lineup when an injury sent Brian Stivers to the bench.

All Anderson did was finish 22-7 and come within a whisker of making the Sweet 16.

"That was tough," L.W. admits. "Senior Night was really tough."

Even though she was stationed in Fort Bragg, Carolyn rarely missed a game, watching tapes the team sent. She saw the yellow ribbons L.W. and his teammates wore in her honor.

But the ultimate test of her faith and resilience came on Mother's Day 11 years ago when representatives of the Marine Corps knocked on the door of her Lawrenceburg home.

"When they show up on your doorstep, you know something is wrong," Carolyn says. "I knew."

P.D., who had dreamed of being a helicopter pilot since middle school, was missing and presumed dead off the coast of San Diego. His H-46 Sea Knight had gone down in what he had told his family would be dangerous maneuvers.

"For a while, we didn't know if he was dead or alive," Shannon remembers. "He was my hero. He had dreams and goals and actually achieved them."

But the news, and ensuing search for her son's body took its toll. The Marines curiously quickly called the search off, but eventually the body was found and returned to Kentucky.

"She has never been the same," Shannon says. "It's like part of her is missing. There were times when she felt guilty that she was enjoying herself and P.D. was not there to enjoy it with her."

Carolyn credits her family and deep religious faith to pulling her through. "The only thing that can get you through that is your faith," she says. "Things like that can break us."

Still, Carolyn Barnes loved military life enough to stick with it. Things seemed fine until the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. With many units being called up, she knew there was a chance she would have to leave her family. It happened not quite 3 years ago.

Being away from her husband of 39 years at a time when he needed a kidney transplant was undoubtedly trying. He eventually got the organ, his second kidney transplant, from his step-sister.

"I can remember her saying, 'Haven't we been through enough?'" Shannon says.

"Many times, you do feel like you have had enough," Carolyn says, "but it's almost like God says, 'OK. If you are going to have a pity party, let's get up and get going.'"

For Carolyn, that happened when she was actually able to come home in January, much sooner than expected. She told her children, who arranged a nice surprise for Doug, but not without some anxious moments.

A planned surprise for Doug at Shannon's house was in jeopardy when Carolyn arrived from Fort Dix earlier than expected. The family managed to hide her just before Doug arrived for dinner.

"She was downstairs," Shannon remembers. "She rain in from the car and hid. She beat Dad here by about 2 minutes. We all cried when she and Dad saw each other."

"She's enjoying her time with her family right now," L.W. adds. "I don't know how she has gotten through all she has."

Carolyn says her formula is simple.

"Life is a choice. You can choose to get up or you can choose to lay down and die. I feel like with my breast cancer, I chose to get up. You have got to get up and do something or depression will eat you up.

"Then I stop and think about other people. I think about losing P.D, but then I remember there are families that have lost 2 sons. I still hurt but I cannot imagine going through that."

And Carolyn Barnes admits that Mother's Day, and every day, she holds on to those she has left much tighter. "I am very much over protective of L.W. and Shannon," she says.

As a mom, Mrs. Barnes knows the ropes when her son has been on both ends of the coaching spectrum.

He took an Anderson program that had never won a regional championship to a pair of state tournaments in his first five years at the helm. She also knows there are parents unhappy with their son's playing time or early exits in the post-season.

"That's part of it," she says. "If you can't take that, you might as well get out of it."

As a mom, what is her remedy for the nay-sayers? "I don't sit with them," she grins. "I don't want to hear it."

Whether Anderson wins or loses, Carolyn says there is something she is much more proud of. "I have seen some of the other teams or their coaches acting so bad," Carolyn says. "If I saw an Anderson County team acting like that, I would say something to L.W. That has to reflect on the coaches at some point."

There's little doubt that Carolyn Barnes is a typical sports mom. "I could count on one hand the number of games she missed when she was not on active duty," L.W. says.

"I played slow pitch softball and was a cheerleader," Shannon adds. "She was always there."

Just like most moms.

But Carolyn Barnes has endured pain, both physical and emotional, that many cannot begin to imagine. She may have more, but she's still going to enjoy playing golf, attending Bearcat baseball games or recreational softball games with her grandkids.

Carolyn Barnes is home.

"Every day, I am blessed," she says. "That doesn't mean my heart does not ache, but I have been blessed."