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Southern European Task Force (Airborne) soldiers stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan admire the lit Christmas tree and watch the celebration at Caserma Ederle on Friday night via a video teleconference center hookup, giving them a glimpse of the holiday season back in Italy.
Southern European Task Force (Airborne) soldiers stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan admire the lit Christmas tree and watch the celebration at Caserma Ederle on Friday night via a video teleconference center hookup, giving them a glimpse of the holiday season back in Italy. (Kent Harris / S&S)
Southern European Task Force (Airborne) soldiers stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan admire the lit Christmas tree and watch the celebration at Caserma Ederle on Friday night via a video teleconference center hookup, giving them a glimpse of the holiday season back in Italy.
Southern European Task Force (Airborne) soldiers stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan admire the lit Christmas tree and watch the celebration at Caserma Ederle on Friday night via a video teleconference center hookup, giving them a glimpse of the holiday season back in Italy. (Kent Harris / S&S)
Santa Claus, known to some as Bob Fox, hands out candy.
Santa Claus, known to some as Bob Fox, hands out candy. (Kent Harris / S&S)
Soldiers with the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force (Airborne) at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan wave at friends and family.
Soldiers with the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force (Airborne) at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan wave at friends and family. (Larry Lane / U.S. Army)

VICENZA, ITALY — For an hour or so Friday night, a few dozen soldiers were reunited with their families as the holiday season officially kicked off at Caserma Ederle.

And they didn’t even have to leave Afghanistan.

Thanks to the 509th Signal Battalion, live feeds of the American military community’s Christmas tree lighting were beamed to Bagram Air Base and Kandahar Airfield. A big screen was set up next to the tree in Italy so spouses, children and community members could see the desert-camouflaged members of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) on the other end.

Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the SETAF commander, even managed to “light” the Christmas tree from his end — simulating the event by pushing down on a giant plunger just before the lights went on.

But even Santa Claus, on hand to pass out candy to children during a cold, rainy evening in Vicenza, couldn’t make the magic last forever. Most knew they would wake up Saturday morning with their soldier dad, mom, husband or wife still deployed downrange.

That’s not a new reality for Caserma Ederle. About 3,000 members of SETAF, joined by thousands of others from units across Germany and the States, are spending a year in Afghanistan. Even more troops are away from countless communities while serving in Iraq.

“I don’t want to say it’s any harder,” Philip Perez said of spending the holidays away from his wife, Sgt. Elizabeth Perez, a member of the SETAF Headquarters and Headquarters Company at Bagram. “But it’s a difficult circumstance because of the holidays.”

Perez also is going to miss her daughter’s birthday Tuesday. Camille turns 6.

Philip Perez said he’s had to take on a lot of tasks that his wife normally handles.

“It could be very stressful,” he said. “But you’ve got to deal with whatever you’ve got.”

Those new duties, however, still don’t include wrapping gifts.

“I’m not the type of guy who wraps presents,” he said. “So I’ve been telling a lot of people they have a chance to make some extra money.”

Susy Roe can relate to the present-wrapping thing.

“The gift-buying and stuff … my husband doesn’t really do a lot of,” she said.

Maj. Tom Roe did manage to help Santa with a few things for the couple’s four children while he was back in Italy on rest and recuperation leave in October.

He also got a chance to see the youngest of his children, Madeline, for the first time. She was born in August while he was deployed.

Roe, a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company at Kandahar, said his military career has given his wife a lot of legitimate reasons to complain. After all, he skipped out on their original wedding to serve in Haiti in 1994.

“She is utterly fantastic,” he said Friday by telephone.

Susy Roe said her second Christmas in Vicenza would certainly be different from the first, when her husband was there.

“Probably my older ones (6-year-old twins Cooper and Cormac) will say, ‘It’s too bad Daddy can’t be here.’ But I’m not sure my 3-year-old (Charlie) really remembers Christmas with his dad.”

As for dad, he’ll be getting a few presents for Christmas, but not a lot.

Most elements of the command are expected to return to Vicenza in February and March.

“I don’t want to send him too many things, because he’s just going to have to send them back,” Susy Roe said.

Hearing that, Tom expressed mock outrage, then laughed.

“I guess I’m not going to be getting a lot of mail, then,” he said.

That’s not the case with Spc. Jason Hoistad, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment.

“I have them already mailed,” his wife, Tammy Wilbur-Hoistad, said of his gifts. “I wanted to make sure they all got there on time.”

Wilbur-Hoistad said she knows it will be tough for her during the holidays.

“All of the things you would normally do with your family … there’s nobody to share them with,” she said. “So you have to rely on your friends. We’ve been surrogate families for each other.”

Wilbur-Hoistad said the fact that she has a job and a daily routine has helped the deployment go quicker for her. The hardest part so far, she said, was her husband’s return to Afghanistan after R&R in October.

“I knew he wasn’t going to come back until the end of the deployment,” she said.

Tom Roe said soldiers deployed share the same separation feelings as their spouses and children.

“The great thing about the military is that you pick each other up and get strength from each other,” he said. “If you’ve got to be away from home, this is a great group of guys to be with.”

That doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect. That was evident from a conversation overheard Friday night between Santa and deployed soldiers on the other side of the video camera:

“I’ve got a long list, Santa. Be patient …”

Migrated
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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