WALTER—The holidays carry an extra-special meaning for one county family this year.

Mother of five, Cynthia Burnham says she just wants one thing for Christmas this year.

More than anything else, she is wishing for the safe return of her eldest son.

"That's what I want too," joked 18-year-old Josh Fortner while wrestling with his 3-year-old brother Ethan at his home Wednesday night.

While Christmas is special time of year for most families, Fortner said this one has to count extra. It could be the last one that he'll spend with them for a long time.

That's because the West Point graduate is actually Pfc. Josh Fortner with the U.S. Marine Corps, and he's scheduled to leave his family on Jan. 4.

After some desert training in California, he will be fighting in Iraq.

"We'll be clearing houses and stuff," said Fortner. "I'm not really scared now, but I'm sure I will be."

His family has mixed feelings about his job:

"I cried. I was a nervous wreck," said Burnham. "I didn't want him to go, but I supported him."

"I know he really wants it, and I'm happy for him," said Wesely Burnham, Fortner's stepfather. "I wish he didn't have to go to Iraq though."

"I'm upset and I don't want him to go, but you can't talk him out of it," said 16-year-old Tiffany Fortner. "But it's impossible."

While it seems that there is little the family can do to change Josh's mind, they make up for it by pledging their support for him and spending as much time together as possible.

"Now, I understand it's what he loves," said Cynthia. "I'm so proud of him. He left for boot camp a little boy and came back a man."

Upon returning from boot camp, Josh made a special effort to spend time with his family, going to the local elementary school in uniform to eat lunch with his 5-year-old sister Katie or taking time to play with his 2-year-old sister Emily.

"I'm probably going to miss them [his siblings] most of all," Josh said.

"They play together all the time," said Cynthia as Ethan put on his older brother's shirt, which nearly dragged the floor.

For Christmas this year, the family has planned an exclusive celebration. In addition to their normal visiting with extended family, they have also planned a night with just the seven of them.

"We go to the waterfalls and the parks a lot more a lot more than we used to," Cynthia said.

As the mother of a Marine, Cynthia expressed frustration that there was not more they could do to welcome returning troops home. Currently, there is little organization in place to tell area residents when soldiers and Marines are even scheduled to return home.

"They come back to nothing, and I think that's sad and ungrateful," she said.

To combat the lackluster tendency, Cynthia is starting an organization to welcome troops home. So far, she has contacted local recruiters and Cullman Mayor Don Green, whom she said pledged full support of the project.

She is asking for volunteers to help her in celebrating the troops.

"Since my son is going to war for me, this is my thing to pay him back," she said. "We need to make sure these boys are welcomed home properly."

After Christmas, Josh will ship out with the 3/8 India Company. His exact location in Iraq will be classified.

He expects to be in Iraq for seven months; his total enlistment will last for four years.

Cynthia said that they are currently preparing to build a new house. It should be completed by the time Josh gets back.

Before joining the Marines, he served as a section leader with the West Point High School Band, playing the snare drum.

He said he plans to continue his relationship with his girlfriend of two years Tonya Blalock.

To contact Cyhthia Burnham in regards to her welcome-home effort call 531-5378.

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