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Down range for the holidays: 18th Airborne Corps soldiers spend time overseas

By RACHAEL RILEY | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: December 24, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — Originally from the Philippines, U.S. Army Sgt. Chester Calica usually celebrates Christmas with his wife, 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter by blending Filipino traditions with American observances.

This year, Calica’s stopping to smell the pine to remember his family.

Calica is spending the holidays with his extended family — hundreds of 18th Airborne Corps, led by Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera and Command Sgt. Maj. Charles W. Albertson, as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. About 400 soldiers from the 18th Airborne Corps are deployed to work with 79 partner nations and organizations dedicated to advising, assisting and training forces fighting against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria.

Calica, an operations movement noncommissioned officer, joined the Army in 2007, was on active duty for three years and joined the Reserves in 2013.

“At first, I was just joking with my wife, because I saw the commercial, but I wasn’t planning to stay in long,” Calica said. “But the way it worked, I feel like it works for me and my family.”

This is the first Christmas and the longest distance Calica has been away from his family.

His daughter turned 9 on Dec. 6.

“It’s funny, because before I even talked to her, she was already asking for a gift for her birthday and Christmas,” Calica said. “But before her birthday, she told her mom, ‘I don’t want gifts anymore. I just want dad to be here.’”

Calica said his son understands better, but wants to be part of the conversation when he’s able to make calls back home.

“That’s the nice thing of being here now, even though we’re far away it’s easy to access Facetime and stuff like that, and you can still see them,” Calica said.

Still, he said moments such as receiving a package and homemade Christmas card from his family are bright spots during the deployment. The cards are at his desk, along with leftover pine tree boughs from a live Christmas tree that his unit decorated.

“It reminds me of my wife, because she always wants pine ... like the wreath and a real Christmas tree, because she likes the smell,” Calica said. “So that’s why I kept the fallen pine (boughs) by my desk, so I can smell them and be reminded of her.”

Similar to Calica, 1st. Lt. John Kistler III is spending his first deployment away from his 6-year-old son Lanning.

Kistler, a Fayetteville, N.C., native, is an intelligence officer with the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion. After working a few years as a teacher and at The Fayetteville Observer, he joined the Army at the age of 30, eight years ago.

With an uncle and a grandfather who both served, Kistler said a conversation with his father inspired him to join.

During Kistler’s first year in the Army, he deployed to Iraq, and six years ago his son was born in South Korea, when Kistler was stationed there.

“This is my first holiday not having him around, and him not having me around as well," Kistler said. "We get through. We have Facetime video chatting and things like that in order to remain in touch with each other.”

Lanning, who is spending his Christmas with his grandparents, said he’s “good,” but a little sad his dad isn’t home for the holidays.

“Daddy said when he gets back, we’ll have a second Christmas,” Lanning said.

Although Kistler can’t be home for the actual holiday, he did plan a surprise.

Elf on a Shelf has been a tradition they started about two years ago. Along with the elf, Kistler has sent a teddy bear and handwritten note back with a lieutenant colonel who was going home for his R&R at Christmas.

“I thought it was a neat way to still play a part in his Christmas and help keep that Christmas spirit and magic alive," Kistler said, "even when I can't be there.”

Lt. Treyvian Durr joined the Army about six years ago, inspired by his uncle’s and his cousin’s military service.

Originally from Mississippi, where his parents, brother and grandmother still live, this is Durr’s first deployment and first holiday away from his family.

“It hasn’t been easy, and it finally has just hit me that we're actually over here," Durr said. "But if it was easy, there wouldn’t be any of our leaders out here also."

Between calls and talking to family on social media, Durr said his unit has tried to make it feel like Christmas as much as possible.

Care packages and letters from nonprofit organizations also have arrived.

“I work in an area where we have trees put up, lights, candy hanging off of them and ornaments set up," Durr said. “There’s a lot of different things. A lot of those are donations that came in the care packages, so there's definitely a lot of holiday cheer going on.”

All three of the 18th Airborne Corps soldiers said friends and family are what they miss the most while being overseas during the holidays.

Durr said spaghetti is his favorite meal his mother cooks, and his grandmother will cook anything he asks, whether it’s a pound cake or chocolate cake.

Calica said he’s usually the one who takes videos or photos, so he’s appreciative his wife is taking on the task.

“I'm definitely going to get back with me like having photos and videos and any stuff I can do with my family,” he said. “I will cherish every time with them as much as I can, because I don't know where I’m going next after this deployment.”

Kistler said the people sitting to the left and right of each other are a new family in the meantime.

“Our commander and our command sergeant major have made it a point to make sure that we have the kind of break that we need within the context of continuing the mission that we have here,” Kistler said, highlighting that the command team hand delivers packages or there's gift exchanges, decorations and candy.

But Kistler said he looks forward to being home to spend time with his family, friends and dog. His time in the Army has taught him the importance of time, he said.

“Time is just one of those things that you can never get back," Kistler said. "Once it’s gone, you miss those moments. So once you have those times, you can never take it for granted. You maximize it to its fullest potential and to all those things you can with your loved ones.”

©2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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