By Sgt. 1st Class Suzanne Ringle
The plywood floors and aluminum framing of the predictably tan tent creek and moan, objecting to the blustery, dust-choked winds outside. The earthy smell in the air does little to mask the pungent aroma of glue emanating from the corner of the room where a transformation is taking place: in the once-typical military office – all browns, tans and beiges – now stands a room besieged with the colors of Christmas.
Used care package boxes have been “re-appropriated” to form a chimney, making it look like real brick and mantel with several stockings hung. The scene is coming together.
Separated by more than 7,000 miles of land and ocean from loved ones and friends, these troops are making Christmas happen for their diverse mix of brothers and sisters in arms – their family away from family, in their home away from home. A shared sentiment throughout the tent is one of missing the traditions of their individual families’ Christmases.
Sgt. 1st Class Deborah Wallace of Noel, Oklahoma, talks animatedly with her hands as she describes her family’s tradition of making cookies, “Cookies, lots and lots of sugar cookies, we get together and decorate hundreds of cookies – I really miss that,” she said.
Wallace continued to talk about her section’s reactions to this “friendly” holiday-decorating competition.
“Everyone in the office has found their Christmas spirit, we have gone all-out, and we even have a snowman costume,” she said. “This is good for the soldiers to get to decorate for the holiday; otherwise, it would make [missing home] that much harder. At least this way they can feel a part of the season.”
In another corner of the tent, a soldier’s face lights up with not just the illumination from his cell phone screen, but also from seeing the face of the child on the screen, from all the way around the world. She is so close to the phone that she fills the whole screen with big, bright eyes and a missing-tooth smile. The little girl is exclaiming something important: “Daddy look! I got a reindeer, he’s got a brown nose, so he’s Vixen!”
Sgt. 1st Class Tim Marino listens as his three-year old daughter, Rylee, continues naming off Santa’s reindeer, the smile never leaving his face. Rylee pauses in her list and a quiet whisper from the background coaches: “Blitzen.”
It’s the sergeant’s wife, Robyn, who takes advantage of a momentarily distracted Rylee to have a private moment between husband and wife, explaining what the children want for Christmas.
When asked what she wants, Robyn answers simply, “Mommy wants Daddy to come home.”
Farther along is a scene not so different from the last, except that the little girl is blonde and five years older, and the man is one of position and in charge for the welfare of many, including his family back home. With each passing second that the child is speaking, the man’s shoulders noticeably begin to relax.
Sgt. Major Carl Goss, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), makes decisions all day-long regarding his soldiers, but right now, he is just “Daddy” to his two little girls. This is a poignant moment to witness: the arrow-stiff soldier, all straight lines and regulations, suddenly becomes all sweet words and soft lines in the palm of his eight-year old daughter Macey’s hand.
Goss thinks of his answer for about a tenth of a second when asked what he will miss most about being away from home over the holidays, already knowing his answer: “Christmas morning. When my girls unwrap their presents and I see their faces,” he said.
This year, they will video chat, but he says it is not the same. Goss remembers how hard communications were when he first joined the military and he says he will gladly do the video chat versus waiting endlessly in line for a limited, five-minute call, as he used to have to do.
As the lead enlisted soldier of HHC, Goss says the holidays can be a difficult time for some of his troops. “As a noncommissioned officer, soldiers’ care is my primary concern,” he said. “Every soldier handles separation from family, holidays and deployments differently, so we have to be able to relate to them and check in on them.”
Goss also shed light on why little things like a Christmas decorating contest are important for developing esprit de corps inside the unit. “When soldiers get lonely, it gives them something to hold on to,” he said.
Soldiers deploy knowing there will be long days and hard work, but there is plenty to do during their off-time. The MWR and the USO offer a variety of distractions like games, movies and events, as well with places to unwind. There are barbecues and plenty physical fitness activities, as well.
There is a time and a place in which a soldier is just “Daddy” or “Mommy.” There is a family back home that does not stand and salute – instead they hug, cuddle and wipe away tears. We expect soldiers to be strong and always on-guard, but during missions and deployments, those private moments between spouses, father and child, or a mom and her babe, are fleeting at best. But they leave a fire inside that drives us on.
Over the course of the U.S. Military’s existence, over 40 million men and women have served, many missing important life events, and many – of course – missing Christmas.
-This story originally appeared on DVIDS.net in 2016. It has been edited for USO.org.