How military families will celebrate holidays with deployed relatives
Planning months in advance to soothe holiday separation, military families open presents via Skype or send care packages to deployed loved ones.
In late October, a week before Master Sgt. James Tongate left for his third mission to Afghanistan with the Kentucky Air National Guard, his extended family gathered in Louisville, Ky., to celebrate his favorite holiday. At his request, they gobbled up a Thanksgiving honey-baked ham instead of turkey, topping off the meal with pecan and pumpkin pies.Skip to next paragraph
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"We tried not to dwell too much on the sadness, because of the kids being around," says his wife, Michelle Tongate.
Since he'll be away for Christmas, she bought him a 14-inch battery-operated tree. Their sons – Caleb, age 10, and Noah, 13 – attached special notes to it and wrapped it for him to take. Tongate knows what's inside but plans to open it while the family watches over Skype in early December.
While many Americans will feast and cuddle up around warm hearths during the holidays, thousands of military families have had to plan ahead to adapt their traditions to the demands of deployment.
"It's hard on both sides.... [On holidays,] families all gather, so to have somebody not there is more palpable," says Rabbi Harold Robinson, a retired Navy rear admiral who is director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council in New York.
Since 9/11, about 1.2 million spouses and more than 2 million children have coped with at least one deployment of a loved one to Iraq or Afghanistan. In the latter part of 2010, about 140,000 troops have been serving on those missions, according to the Defense Department and International Security Assistance Force.
Most deadlines for mailing Christmas packages to military personnel overseas came in mid-November, so groups across America were busy this fall collecting everything from phone cards to beef jerky.
Some cheer has gone the other direction, too. Thanks to a Hallmark donation, 20,000 military families have received "The Night Before Christmas" recordable storybook so that children can hear their distant parents' voices.
Cathy Wilson didn't wait for Christmas to surprise her children with the sound of their dad's voice. In early November, she took the youngest three of their five kids to a Build-A-Bear Workshop, where Oliver Wilson had secretly recorded a message for each of them before his current mission with the Marines in Afghanistan.
Her 2-year-old, Carter, was startled to hear the voice at first, but Ms. Wilson hopes the bear will help him adjust. For the first few weeks of the deployment, "he would wake up all the time and ... cry 'no dada no dada', " she writes in an e-mail from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in southern California.