SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Keeping spirits bright can be a special challenge for individuals and families separated by overseas deployments.

The possibility of feeling down or sad — having the “holiday blues” — is intensified when servicemembers are in combat zones or anticipating deployment, officials say.

And this year, thousands of troops from across the Pacific — including 3,500 from the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea and 900 Marines from Okinawa’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit — are deployed in Iraq. Sasebo’s Essex Expeditionary Strike Group, including the USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Juneau, is in the northern Arabian Gulf and about 300 airmen from Yokota Air Base, Japan, are scheduled to deploy in January throughout Southwest Asia.

“The holiday time is a very sensitive issue for those deployed,” said Lt. William Onuh, a Roman Catholic chaplain at Sasebo, who deployed with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune to Iraq at this time last year. “It becomes an emotional roller coaster.

“There is a tendency for some to think their deployed loved ones don’t think about them, or they don’t care. But that’s not true,” he said. “They think about not being there. They talk about things they would love to do with their children, but they can’t.”

One Navy officer who asked not to be identified said, “This holiday blues business is definitely a real issue, and not something we just sort of imagine, because, ‘Well, these people aren’t back home, so they must be depressed.’… it’s a real deal.

“There are four Christmas holiday periods in a row from several years back that I don’t even remember because I was drinking so much,” the officer recalled.

Officials say other factors contributing to the holiday blues include stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization of the holidays and financial constraints.

Shannon Johnson is home at Sasebo with her three children while her husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Manny Johnson, is deployed with the Harpers Ferry.

“Sure, I’m ‘OK,’ but you have to work at it,” she said. “If there is something you need, well, get it. There are all kinds of programs and events in place offering just about everything you can think of.

“You have to carry on, and enjoy yourself. It’s your choice, and you can do it. Do you think my husband is floating around … hoping we have miserable holidays because he isn’t here? I don’t think so,” Johnson said.

Navy Lt. Lloyd Davis, a psychologist with Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station’s Navy Branch Medical Clinic, said, “Holiday blues sufferers range from homesick individuals who miss their families and pets, to individuals with a diagnosable depressive disorder that impairs their social or family life or their work significantly and may lead to thoughts of suicide.”

Davis said more cases of the blues and depression appear during the holidays.

“The number of individuals contemplating suicide increases … over most other months, but this is also the time when the operational tempo is slower and there are actually more people on base,” he said.

Pacific bases provide opportunities to celebrate holidays with religious services, social functions and, at some facilities, holiday blues avoidance training.

Iwakuni’s “Making Spirits Bright” program, which began at Thanksgiving and continues through New Year’s Day, offers daily activities sponsored by Marine Corps Community Services.

The Marines in Iwakuni are “the best I have seen” at taking care of each other by having activities, free food, trips and sporting events this time of year, Davis said. “I have heard from several Marines that they have had a better time in Iwakuni over the holidays than they have ever had at home.”

On Okinawa, Marine Corps Community Services, Marine and Family Services Branch, sponsored a series of 19 holiday presentations earlier this month called “Beating the Blues.”

John Velker, MCCS Okinawa’s Substance Abuse Counseling director, described the sessions as positive, optimistic and educational. “By staying personally connected,” he said, “we will more easily identify and assist those who need our support.”

The counseling director said holidays usually create downtime and “there’s that tendency to party” when there’s downtime, he said. “We accentuate the positive and the optimistic and inform them about the myriad of things they can do that are much more enriching than just drinking.”

This is Marine Pfc. Marcus Winfield’s and Pfc. Ben Pulice’s first holiday season away from family and friends.

Both Marines, from 3rd Transportation Support Battalion in Okinawa, said they’d miss being home and expressed concern for troops in Iraqi war zones this holiday season.

Pulice said the reality of war recently “hit home” as a good friend’s father was killed in Iraq and a cousin left Iraq for home with grenade shrapnel wounds.

Winfield said he has several friends deployed in Iraq. “I just pray for their safe return. It will help me when they come home safe,” he said. “It will help build my morale for when I have to go over.”

Spc. Jessica True recently arrived in South Korea after serving with the 51st Transportation Company in Iraq.

She said this Christmas she would be thinking about her friends from the 51st, who deployed to Iraq for a second time this month.

“I pray for them every day because I just think they are getting a raw deal. I PCSed (permanent change of station) about two weeks ago before their orders for Iraq came in," she said.

Sasebo’s command chaplain, Cmdr. Harvey Ranard said, “If you notice a friend withdrawing, or projecting an obvious change in demeanor, don’t hesitate to ask what is bothering them.

“Most of the time, even in severe depression or suicidal cases, they will talk to you. If they have holiday blues, you’re letting them know someone cares and you can invite them out … get them out of themselves.

“That’s a friend,” he said.

Fred Zimmerman, Seth Robson and Vince Little contributed to this report.

Coping with ‘holiday blues’¶ Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable. Try to set realistic goals for yourself.

¶ Remember the holiday season does not mean you cannot also feel sad or lonely; there is room for those feelings on occasion.

¶ Leave "yesteryear" in the past and look to the future. Don't compare today with the "good ol' days."

¶ Do something for someone else. Try volunteering some time to help others.

¶ Enjoy free activities such as driving around, looking at holiday decorations and window-shopping.

¶ Be aware that excessive drinking will only increase your depression.

¶ Try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a new way.

¶ Spend time with supportive and caring people. Make new friends or contact old ones.

¶ Save time for yourself. Recharge your batteries. Let others share responsibility for activities.

Source: The National Mental Health Association

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