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. 

Finbarr O’Reilly/REUTERS
In south Afghanistan, deployed Marines open packages from home. During the holiday season, military families plan ahead to celebrate with deployed relatives.

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.

"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.

Soldiers' Angels, a charity in Pasadena, Calif., is sending care packages that include handmade holiday blankets and inspirational music. It aimed this year for about 100,000 holiday packages.

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.

The Wilsons had a big Christmas last year, knowing Oliver would miss the holidays this time around. Instead of a real tree, which he usually sets up, she's thinking she'll put up an artificial one decked out in red, white, and blue.

Hanging holiday lights isn't easy for a parent on his or her own. So to bring some cheer, Christmas Decor, a decorating company in Lubbock, Texas, donates services each year to light up the homes of dozens of military families in its franchise areas.

Michelle Von Holtz's resident Christmas-light hanger – her husband, Sean – was expected to have a two-week leave for Thanksgiving this year. But he's been deployed during holidays before, so she's used to him being away. For Christmas, she already has a friend lined up in case she needs help assembling gifts for their 3- and 10-year-old daughters.

For them, as for many families, the most important thing is to make the most of the time they have together. Sean's biggest gift during his leave will "probably be just spending time with [the children] as much as he can ... until they drive him crazy," his wife says.

When a parent is gone for the holidays, one way to take children's minds off the absence is to give them a memorable experience, says Alison Buckholtz, a Navy wife in Washington, D.C., with a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

But it took some trial and error to learn that. "My [military] friends and I talk a lot about the fact that we fall into this trap of overbuying for the kids, because we feel so guilty that they can't have one of their parents around," says Ms. Buckholtz, author of "Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War." "They won't remember that they got a giant bouncy castle that cost me $300 [a few years ago] ... but they remember that we spent three weeks at my parents' house."

After several long deployments, the Buckholtz family "hit the jackpot" this year, she says, because her husband, Scott, is home for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year's, and their wedding anniversary.

For the troops, the military does make an effort to mark holidays. But for adherents of minority faiths, it's not as easy to find the camaraderie that others find on occasions like Christmas.

Many Jewish soldiers are the only ones in their units who are "missing latkes [potato pancakes] on Hanukkah," says Mr. Robinson of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. His group sends menorahs made out of folded tin, candles, dreidels, and candy to Jewish troops "so that they have the basic accouterments" for Hanukkah, which this year starts the evening of Dec. 1.

Here on the home front, 10-year-old Caleb Tongate has been acting out his loneliness in ways that concern his mom. After a recent outburst, he told her he was afraid his dad would be shot.

James Tongate sometimes sacrifices sleep between missions to call the boys. "It is a bit humbling to be separated through the holidays [but] this type of experience makes me cherish my family even more," he writes in an e-mail.

He'll order Christmas gifts online, and the boys will wrap something for him to open when he comes home in January. Michelle received her gift before he left – a dog-tag necklace with the inscription "Distance may keep us apart, but remember you'll always be in my heart."

But the two of them will still celebrate belatedly on his return. "I told her that I would 'rope the moon' if that's what she wants," he writes, "because that is what she deserves after going through a lot of lonely times."

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