Medford welcomes newest hometown hero to his new home

Family awaited Jeffrey Mekelburg’s return after 13 months away.

A simple post in a community group on Facebook helped Lauren Mekelburg welcome home her husband, Maj. Jeffrey, from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan. The Marine’s homecoming was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic as Hoot Owl residents blare their horns on Aug. 14 for Medford’s newest hero (Kathleen Valenti/ Special to The Sun).

Hoot Owl residents virtually stretched their arms wide open to welcome three-fourths of the Mekelburg family to their Medford neighborhood.

The welcome wagon continued when the last of the family arrived home from an Afghan deployment on Aug. 14.

“My wife (Lauren) went above and beyond as usual,” Maj. Jeffrey Mekelburg remarked. “The neighbors did a huge car parade and we’re very new to the area. She had all of these people who wanted to drive by and show their support.”

Lauren, a nurse at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, informed other Hoot Owl residents that Jeffrey would return home from Afghanistan the next day. Neighbors came out in droves to extend their thanks and appreciation to Jeffrey as the family reunited.

Lauren had done most of the work searching for a new home with her dad,  relaying options to Jeffrey through a secure messaging service. Once a final decision came, Lauren packed the family’s Ocean City home with the help of other loved ones and made trips to their new Medford home.

The Mekelburg family (Kathleen Valenti/ Special to The Sun).

Though Jeffrey’s 13-month deployment had ended, the COVID-19 pandemic put homecoming plans on hold because the Marine Corps wanted to ensure its service members’ health and safety. He was notified the night before his journey that he would board a flight back to the U.S. come sunrise.

The news caused panic as it reached Lauren and daughters Ellie, 6, and Norah, 3. The family had stayed in touch with each other through a secure video chatting platform, but only for minutes at a time. Lauren worked in the COVID-19 unit at Shore Medical and did double duty caring for and educating her children during her husband’s deployment.

“You can tell she was a rock to the family,” Jeffrey said of his wife’s role as a military spouse. “Even when she was upset, she would wait for them to be in bed to cry or whatnot so they don’t see it.

“It’s such a strength to be able to do that for nearly a year.”

In the Middle East, Jeffrey and other Marines filled their time with exercise, humor and camaraderie. Jeffrey’s job was to serve as an officer at an Afghan air base.

Lauren sought advice and comfort while her husband was away through connections with other Marine and military spouses who allowed her to vent and seek help with Ellie’s remote school instruction.

Now at home with her family complete once more, Lauren extended gratitude to her neighbors for their support after the family arrived in May.

“I had someone reach out to me saying they were sorry they couldn’t make it and wanted to buy me a pizza,” she recalled. “It’s so nice to see people do these kind things, especially during this time. We are so grateful and appreciative people in our neighborhood have been.”