Charlie Mitchell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Maj. Jack Rhea Tannehill, Municipal Judge for Sardis, said goodbye to wife Robyn and daughter Maggie in Charleston last week. Tannehill is headed to Camp Shelby and then Afghanistan. Photo by Katie Carter- The Vicksburg Post

Mitchell: War is not an abstraction for one little Maggie Tannehill

What are you doing for Christmas?

Jack Rhea Tannehill Jr. of Oxford is going to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg — and then to Afghanistan.

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I don’t know him.

He was just a face in the crowd last week when one of The Vicksburg Post’s photojournalists, Katie Carter, came back from an assignment to cover yet another deployment of yet another Mississippi Army National Guard Unit to yet another war zone. Photographed with Tannehill were his wife, Robyn, and their daughter Maggie, 8.

Tannehill, a major, had gathered with others in the detachment of the 168th Engineer Brigade for the group huddle, the group prayer and to listen to their commanders’ words of encouragement.

Then, with idling diesels of chartered Greyhounds humming in the background, there were the hugs.

The awful hugs.

Hugs offered with confidence in a short separation (“time will fly”) and in somber recognition that despite daily and relentless prayers that it not be so, such hugs have been the last for dozens of families in Mississippi and thousands nationwide during the past six years.

Children are the only honest people at deployments.

They weep openly. Their hurt shows. They don’t understand why daddy or mommy is leaving.

Especially at Christmas.

It wasn’t hard to find out more about Jack Rhea Tannehill Jr.

When he was growing up, his parents, Jack and Jane, owned The Union Appeal, a weekly newspaper in a crossroads town in east central Mississippi. Tannehill worked there while attending Union High School. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration and education at Ole Miss, where he was also student body president, he was accepted into law school in 1992.

Tannehill did something else that year. He joined the Army National Guard.

Initially, he was trained as a cannon fire direction specialist at Ft. Sill, Okla. He later learned how to deploy and operate ground-to-air missile installations. Ten years ago, he was commissioned into the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, which is where the Army puts lawyers, at least when not deployed. He wears the Mississippi War Medal, Mississippi Emergency Service Medal, Mississippi Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal, two Army Reserve Component Overseas Training Ribbons, the Army Commendation Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal.

His civilian law practice has been in Oxford for the past 12 years. Oxford and Jackson are the Mississippi meccas for lawyering and Tannehill has done a bit of everything — personal injury cases, criminal defense, collections, family law, wills and estates. It’s no real surprise that he was also elected president of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Mississippi Bar Association. It adds a measure of confidence in the state legal system to know he has served on the Mississippi Bar’s Professional Responsibility Committee, including a year as chairman, and on the Bar’s Character and Fitness Committee.

He has also served as municipal judge in Sardis.

Tannehill and Robyn are also founding members of Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford.

Of course, none of that mattered much to Maggie at the deployment as her daddy, with a fresh haircut and wearing a funny hat and hunting clothes, stood with a bunch of other men and women, all dressed alike and all carrying luggage that appeared to be made from the same fabric as their shirts and pants. Like her brother, Jack, who is 5, and sister, Molly Catherine, a toddler, Maggie could not care less about her father’s resume. She probably knows the names of George Bush and Barack Obama and has heard of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt she knows about good and bad and that good’s a good thing and bad has to be dealt with. That’s about as much as young children grasp.

What she and the other little Tannehills do know — and what they are left to deal with — is that on a day with slate skies signaling another blast of cold air into the Southland, their daddy said he had to go — and he got on a bus and he went.

Some people shouted words of good cheer. There was scattered applause. Due to the looming clouds, the red, white and blue of flags and banners, large and small, seemed brighter than normal.

And Maggie wept.

War is not unusual on the timeline of America. Maggie is one among millions here, hundreds of millions if the timeline is expanded to include all of human history. Sympathy for her is not the point. Nor for the Tannehills. They have much for which to be grateful.

The point is that while war is discussed in predictable and even jingoistic terms — “front,” “company,” “operating base,” “logistics,” “firepower,” “sortie,” “unit,” “tactical target” and hundreds more — war is not an abstraction.

It’s as personal as the tears on Maggie’s face.

And if we ever forget to stop and think about that, we’ve lost everything worth fighting for.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail