One soldier home from deployment reflects on the gift of family time
Spc. Alfredo Hernandez spent Christmas 2012 in the Kuwaiti desert, eating pecan pie and trying not to think too much about home.
Months before, Hernandez saw his son’s birth on Skype, his sister positioning herself with a laptop in the delivery room so he could witness it from his far-flung duty station. When the doctors and nurses presented little Jacob — born on the same date as his father — to the webcam, they sang “Happy Birthday.”
Technology often keeps deployed troops closer to home than ever before. But as Hernandez knows all too well, there’s no substitute for being there, in the flesh, together.
“Every minute that ticks and you’re away from your family is precious,” said Hernandez, who until this year hadn’t spent a Christmas with his family since 2010. “The most cherished thing I have is time.”
A mortuary affairs specialist with the 111th Quartermaster Company at Fort Lee, Hernandez spent the last half of 2012 in Kuwait, a brief landing spot for the bodies of fallen soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hernandez, 37, spent many of his days face to face with the human cost of war, packing ice on the bodies of men and women before their final trip home. It’s tough work in war, despite being safe from the bullets and bombs that have taken thousands of American lives since 9/11.
“Seeing actually how some of these guys come back, it tears me up a little bit,” Hernandez said. “But it’s my job. It’s my duty. And I have to be able to do this.”
Since her husband returned home in January, Aide Hernandez has often reminded him how nice it is to have him home. Hernandez reminds himself that he’s one of the lucky ones — the ones who come back alive.
Aide cried when her husband first told her he was joining the Army. Laid off from his job as a paralegal in Texas, Alfredo turned to the military in 2010 to support his family.
Aide went home to Texas while her husband served overseas. So for Christmas 2012, while Alfredo pretended to be happy in a strange place, Aide tried the same trick in a familiar one.
Aide had Jacob, then 3 months old, and Isabella, then 2, at her mother’s house for their traditional Christmas Eve celebration — singing with the whole family about the birth of Jesus, breaking a piñata, eating tamales.
As they sat down to eat, Isabella made sure the teddy bear wearing camouflage — “daddy bear,” she called it — had room beside her at the table.
On Christmas morning, Aide and the kids spoke briefly to Alfredo. He kept it short because he didn’t want his mood to upset them. Aide kept a smile on for the children, but inside she was feeling the same Christmas blues.
“We were surrounded by people that care for us and love us and everything, but it still wasn’t the same,” she said. “It was a little lonely.”
Alfredo and Aide have been married nearly 15 years. They met in Texas, when Aide was a radio DJ taking love song requests. Alfredo was flipping stations in his car, and liked her voice. Thanks to some prodding from his brother, Alfredo called to request a date.
Isabella is too young to remember her daddy being away for two Christmases — in 2011, he was attending Advanced Individual Training for his military career.
Now 3, she’s old enough to cherish all the end-of-year customs. Every time the family passes illuminated yards at night, she shouts, “Daddy, Daddy, it’s Merry Christmas.”
The family has lights strung across its porch at Fort Lee, along with a small, inflatable snowman. Isabella wants to be there every night to help turn them on, almost as if it’s a family ceremony.
On Christmas morning, when Alfredo began handing out the presents from under the tree, Isabella couldn’t contain her excitement. The singing doll Santa brought her was perfect. And who better to help Jacob open his gifts than his big sister?
The small girl who wakes up each morning for a goodbye hug and kiss and the little boy who just started walking are daily reminders of the lesson Alfredo has learned as a soldier: Family time is a gift that can’t be replaced.
The family considered going back to Texas this year to celebrate Christmas with the whole family. But Alfredo nixed the idea, in part because of the 26-hour drive but largely because of the demands of visiting. During those rare trips to Texas, everyone wants — deserves — a piece of their time.
This year, Alfredo decided, their time is too important to divvy among grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. So they spent their holidays in their home at Fort Lee, just the four of them.
Even though they had to take Jacob to the doctor for three hours to get him treated for a fever that would be diagnosed as pneumonia, they were all together on a Christmas Day that ended with them curled up in front of the TV with popcorn. And that’s enough.
“When he’s been away for the past years, it’s like we’re here, but we’re not really here,” Aide Hernandez said. “(Having him home), it’s just a feeling of completeness.”