Holidays lose luster without deployed dads
December 24, 2003
Since Christmas grabbed America’s imagination in the middle of the 19th century, it has been the country’s purest expression of family love. Religion and commerce have wrestled for the holiday’s soul, but no one ever has doubted that families ought to spend Christmas together.
This year’s Iraq war wrenched more servicemembers from their families over the holidays than in any year since 1990, creating 180,000 blue Christmases at U.S. military bases around the world.
Here in Europe, thousands of families — from Baumholder, Germany, to Vicenza, Italy — are holding up holiday traditions for the sake of the children, even though Dad or Mom is at war.
“We will enjoy Christmas, just like we always do,” said Jeanne Kelly of Illesheim, Germany, whose husband is in Iraq with the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. “Weeks of planning and buying, spending money we really shouldn’t to make sure the kids are spoiled, then the 5 a.m. wake-up from one of the kids to let me know Santa has come, 15 minutes of unwrapping — and the novelty of Christmas is over.
“I guess you can say,” she added, “that even when we’re at war, some things never change.”
When Sgt. Christopher Conway marched off to war with the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment last February, he left behind a six-months’ pregnant wife, Kari.
He missed the birth of his daughter, Kiersten, and her first tooth. Now he’ll be missing her first visit from Santa.
Kari, 21, is making the best of things.
“From the beginning, I never expected him to be gone this long,” she said. “I know he’s coming home soon after [the holidays], and that’s what’s getting us through.”
Kari went home to Iowa last spring and gave birth to Kiersten with the support of her family. Chris, 24, arrived 10 days later but could spend only five days with his first child before duty called him back, where he is a sheet-metal maintenance supervisor for Company D, 6/6 Cavalry’s maintenance unit.
She returned to Illesheim four months later because she felt closer to Chris there. She has bonded with other Army wives, and with her German landlords, who have embraced Kari and Kiersten like family.
Typically, Kari and Chris open their presents together on Christmas. They spend a quiet day at home, preparing a turkey dinner.
“This year,” she said, “I’ll definitely be going to church.”
Like many families with loved ones in Iraq, she intends to leave the Christmas tree up until her soldier comes back. They’ll celebrate the holiday together then.
“He’s missed out on a lot of firsts,” Kari said. “We keep telling each other we’ll have lots of Christmases together.”
One surprise for Chris when he arrives home will be hearing Kiersten say the first word she learned.
Even Scrooge would have a hard time fighting off the Christmas spirit at Monica Newell’s house.
The entrance to the third-floor apartment in Baumholder, Germany’s Smith Housing is trimmed with red lights and holly, and a Christmas tree is the first thing anyone sees when they walk in the door. Monica’s shiny mahogany dining room table is set for a Christmas feast with her best china, crystal and a festive centerpiece.
A 2-foot-high Santa — rosy cheeks on a chocolate-brown face — sways in the corner next to the table.
But this year, Christmas won’t seem like Christmas no matter how cheery her apartment, Monica says. Without her soldier, Christmas Day won’t be special. “It’s just a day that passes by,” she said.
At least Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Newell has gotten a bigger helping of holiday spirit than many of the 125,000 U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq. Derrick, logistics noncommissioned officer in charge with the headquarters battery of the 1st Armored Division’s Division Artillery, headed back to Iraq last Thursday after 15 days of mid-deployment rest and recuperation leave.
Thursday marks the first time in the 14 years they’ve been together that her husband will miss Christmas at home because of war, Monica says.
To make up for not having Christmas together, the couple and their son, Terrance, 13, treated themselves to two days in the mountains at Armed Forces Recreation Center resort in Garmisch, Germany, where they celebrated Christmas on Dec. 15.
“But it wasn’t Christmas. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wasn’t in the mood to do anything,” Monica says.
For Monica and Terrance, holidays are now simply time markers until their soldier comes home. “Who wants to have a family tradition without everybody?” Terrance says.
When 7-year-old Courtney Lopez had a chance to tell Santa at the Aviano Air Base, Italy, exchange what she wanted for Christmas, her reply was simple: “Papa.”
Courtney’s mother, Stephanie, has the same wish.
“This is our first Christmas apart,” Stephanie says, holding 4-year-old Benjamin on her lap. “It’s probably going to be more spiritual this year than material.”
Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Lopez headed to Iraq with other members of the 603rd Air Control Squadron in November. Unlike most airmen, members of the 603rd are staying longer than a few months. They aren’t expected back until summer.
The couple shopped early for Christmas decorations, so they could be shipped down with the squadron “to make sure they had more of a Christmas,” in Iraq.
He put on a soldier’s brave front, but no one could miss the choking in Sgt. Brian Gille’s voice last Monday, a few hours before he shipped back to Iraq.
No, he didn’t regret the two weeks’ R&R leave, even if it did begin a few days after Thanksgiving and end 10 days before Christmas.
“It’s pretty terrible. I missed all the holidays,” said Brian, 26, an armaments technician with the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment in Illesheim. “But I’m still really happy I got to come home.”
Brian and his wife, Priscilla, have been doing their best to keep things normal for their three children, Christopher, 6; Blair, 4; and Morgan, 11 months. The tree and decorations are up, even if the spirits are a little lower. This is Brian’s first Christmas away from home.
“We’re a lot slower to get into the Christmas spirit this year,” Priscilla said. “We’re trying to keep it close to the same. But there’s probably a few less presents this year.”
She said the burden of Brian’s absence has fallen most heavily on Christopher, who is old enough to understand that daddy is away at war, and that war is dangerous, but not quite able to grasp why people fight.
But Brian has appointed Christopher “the man of the house” in his absence, a duty the child takes seriously. On Christmas, now old enough to read the tags, he will take over his father’s job as the family Santa and hand out gifts.
“Christopher is really stepping up to the plate,” Priscilla said. “He helps me a lot. He’s really matured. We’re all stronger because of this. I’m doing things I’ve never done before.”
The second goodbye last week truly was heartbreaking. But Christopher is marking the days on his calendar until his dad comes home. Less than two months to go.
The only gnocchi the Marcantonio family will eat this Christmas might come from a restaurant or grocery store. First Sgt. Frank Marcantonio, a second generation Italian American, is deployed to Iraq with the rest of Battery D, 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment from the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
“He takes care of the cooking,” said wife Maria, who stayed in Vicenza with children, Paulo, 13, Vince, 12, and Chelsea, 11. “I’m not much of a cook. So this year, it’s going to be scary.”
The kids laugh in agreement.
“We’ll try fixing something easy,” Paulo said, looking at his mom.
Not only will the family spend its first Christmas apart this year, it seems like much of the year the head of the household has been gone. Dad went to Vicenza early in the year while the family stayed in Schweinfurt, Germany, so the kids could finish school. By the time Mom and the kids drove to Vicenza, Dad had left for Iraq.
Paulo said he’ll miss not only Dad’s cooking, but some competition at Christmas.
“He always comes and plays the new PlayStation games we get for Christmas,” he said.
So, by the time Dad gets home in the spring, he’ll have some very tough competition.
Walk up to Jeanne Kelly’s front door at Illesheim Army Airfield, and you won’t see a Christmas wreath. The yellow ribbon — the universal sign of deployed soldiers — has been there since her husband, Sgt. Ryan Kelly, left for Iraq with the 6/6 Cavalry in February.
A collage of photos of Ryan, 27, with Jeanne and their four children — Lindsey, 11; Madison, 6; Rylee, 2; and Ayden, 1 — around the yellow ribbon have replaced the usual Christmas cards and wreath.
“I would feel weird taking it down before he gets back,” said Jeanne, 33. “The front door is a monument to daddy.”
It has been an especially trying year for the Kellys. The father of one of her children’s friends, a soldier in the unit, died in Iraq in September when a tire he was changing exploded. That prompted fears that their daddy, too, would not come home.
“How do you explain war to a 6-year-old who is asking you, ‘Is daddy killing people?’” she said. “I hate it. I’ve had a really hard time with that.”
Also, Jeanne suffered from painful kidney stones that required hospitalization and surgery. She said she had to fight the Army to keep her children out of foster care and to get her husband home on emergency leave. She’s only recently recovered.
“I do find support through my church and my chaplain,” she said, “but when it comes to sink or swim, you’re on your own.”
Jeanne and the kids sent some Christmas cheer to Ryan in the desert, including a little tree, cards and photos of the gifts that are waiting for him under the tree at home, wrapped in a big red bow.
Back in Illesheim, Santa will come to the house as usual. But the tree will stay up and family presents will remain wrapped until Ryan returns in February.
Even as Edie Hoyte faces the toughest holiday season of her 14-year marriage, she and sons, Michael, 11, and C.J., 9, thought of someone less fortunate than themselves.
They “adopted” an orphan from the local children’s home, buying presents and taking the child out for a day of fun.
“That is something we’d never done before,” she said.
Edie’s husband, Sgt. 1st Class George Hoyte, left early last February for Iraq with the 6/6 Cavalry, for whom he works as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the personnel shop. Although he did get a brief R&R trip to Qatar last month, he hasn’t come home to Germany.
“My husband says ‘Adapt and overcome,’” says Edie, 43. “We understand that he has a job to do. I have a job to do; that’s to take care of the boys. The boys have a job, and that’s to go to school. If we all do our jobs, then this will be over soon, and we’ll be just fine.”
She and her husband feel a strong responsibility to set a good example not only for her sons, but for the many younger families on the small base at Illesheim.
“He stays focused and I stay focused,” Edie says. “We keep our heads up; we hang in there and await his return.”
With her husband gone at Christmas for the first time in their 13-year marriage, Kendra Burgess is returning to the bosom of family for the holidays.
Kendra, 31, and her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Burgess, met in high school in their hometown of West Plains, Mo. She and children, Erica, 13, and Ashton, 9, will bask in the attention of grandmas and grandpas.
“I’m going because I need to be with my family,” Kendra says. “My mom’s got the house all decorated. The only thing that’s missing is us.”
It’s been a lonely 10 months since John, an engineer with the 67th Combat Support Hospital in Würzburg, left for the Middle East. He deployed without the rest of his unit, attached to the 30th Medical Brigade at Balad Air Base 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Only a few people from the 67th CSH deployed, so the unit’s Family Readiness Group never mobilized. She has pulled through the war by building her own support network, with her children providing two of the pillars.
“My children have given me more support than they realize,” she says. “They’ve both matured quite a bit. They’ve taken a lot of responsibility. They’ve understood this deployment much better than I would have expected.”
John left home early this month after an all-too-brief R&R visit. It was wonderful while it lasted, and bittersweet when it ended.
The family will return right after New Year’s. Although she’s often felt alone, Kendra said she does not regret staying in Germany.
“I felt it was my duty,” she says. “My heart and my home are in Würzburg, and I’m staying.”
For families that are together, the holidays can be the best of times. For those that are apart, they can be the worst of times.
It is critical that families of deployed servicemembers keep communications open, said Maj. Gary Tryniszewski, chief of social work at Würzburg Army Hospital, who spent four months in Iraq this year serving on a combat stress team.
He recommends videotapes, audiotapes, phone calls, e-mails, letters, anything that keeps families in touch. But avoid media coverage of Iraq, which can only cause anxiety.
“Don’t stay glued to CNN,” Tryniszewski said. “That’s something that will create a lot of anxiety.”
He thinks families of deployed servicemembers need to support each other any way they can. Family Readiness Groups need to support their members, including spouses who seem to be chronic complainers, because they often are the ones who need help the most.
“Holidays are very difficult for anyone [alone],” Tryniszewski said. “The last thing they’d want to do is sit around the house alone.”
Despite the long deployment, he said he has seen relatively few people seeking treatment for depression this Christmas. Perhaps it’s because this deployment is nearly over.
Or perhaps it is because so many families have found a way to do what Edie Hoyte is doing, just as military families have done for centuries.
“We’re just taking it in stride,” she says, “one day at a time.”