By Gaia Self

For our military community, being “home for the holidays” can take many shapes and forms, but it often means separation from family, a bare house without any decorations prior to – or immediately after – moving around the world and lots of creativity from military parents as they try to still deliver the magic of the season to their children despite the challenging demands of life as a military family.

This year, the USO collaborated with Google Nest to help make Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California, a little more festive by setting up a gingerbread house in front of the USO location on the base. Inside, service members and military families found a homey living room and a kitchen where they can make cookies, take pictures and create special memories. On their way out, they received a surprise: a Nest Hub. The display device showcases photos of family and friends to help families and service members enjoy memories and feel more connected to loved ones.

Ready to train and fight to keep our country safe, service members often spend the holidays far from their loved ones. However, even when they are home, there are many times the military lifestyle can present some unique situations for planning and prepping for the holidays.

“I felt guilty because I could not decorate for the holidays” said Krystal Zamano, a Marine Corps spouse and mother of two children. Her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Eleazar Zamano, received orders to move to Hawaii and the day after the gingerbread house event, movers were planning to come to pack up all their belongings. Without decorations at their own home, their kids were thrilled to see the life-size gingerbread house outside of the USO, where they got to decorate cookies and take family pictures by the fireplace.

With this gingerbread house, the USO and Google Nest provided the military community with the feeling of the holidays: the warmth of being at home and together as a family, which can be hard to find when are separated from friends and family in a new, unfamiliar place. The decked-out and decorated gingerbread house turns on the magic with a simple voice command: “Hey Google, make it festive!” This prompts the tree to light up, the electric train to start its journey around the room, the fireplace to appear and holiday music to fill the room.

Memories of programs like these, captured and shared with the power of technology, play an important role in easing the burden of separation.

Even if someone is gone, you still want to make the holidays special,” said Tracy Genica, center operations and programs manager.

Photo credit Gaia Self

Tracy Genica and her son Ryan pose in front of the Google Nest Gingerbread House at Camp Pendleton.

A military spouse herself, Genica took her youngest son to visit the gingerbread house as he prepared to face his father’s first deployment since he was born. Genica has spent several holidays apart from her husband and with each deployment, they find new ways of staying in touch despite the distance. When their daughter Kylie was born and her husband was once again deployed, Genica kept the spirit of gift-giving alive by sending him a DVD of baby pictures of Kylie. Now, during times apart, they use video call platforms and still share memories through photos.

When planning events for the USO, Genica aims to provide positive experiences for service members and military families so they will have happy memories of their time in the military. As a military family, making the most of every moment together is crucial. “When you don’t have a lot of time, each memory counts even more,” Genica said. For Genica and other military families, the USO is where special and valuable moments of connection happen.

The USO officially opened its doors on Camp Pendleton in March 2019 and since then, USO staff and volunteers have developed a strong community of service members and military families that visit the center to relax, meet new people and find activities for everyone. Families like the Zamanos attend USO programs to keep busy and distracted while Dad is deployed, and they all participate in USO programs together when he is home.

“We love the USO because they treat us like family,” Zamano said. “They understand what we are going through.”