How Military Families Cope with the Pang of Separation During the Holidays

By Sydney Johnson

The holiday season often brings families together. Many gather in their homes to share laughs, open presents, eat hearty meals and continue other traditions. For military families, however, this isn’t always guaranteed, as many service members don’t return home for holidays – one of the many sacrifices they make to protect the rest of us.

Most military families know what it’s like to be separated from their service member at one point or another during their military career. Deployments can send American troops to any corner of the world and can last anywhere from a few months to more than a year. While any deployment can be hard on military families, when a deployment overlaps with the holiday season, the pang of this separation can be even tougher.

How service members celebrate the holidays while deployed

When service members are deployed, communication with family members can decrease drastically. Sometimes, it’s completely nonexistent. This is never easy, but it’s especially difficult around the holidays when togetherness is part of the fun.

For Navy Capt. Richard Weathers, 30 years of service and deployments meant missing many of his children’s milestones, like his oldest daughter’s first Thanksgiving, as he was deployed to the Gulf War shortly after she was born. Moments like these only happen once, and he wasn’t able to be there.

Sometimes, it wasn’t just Richard who was away; his wife moved with him when he was stationed in Japan later in his career. This meant the couple was separated from their college-aged daughters for several years, missing three consecutive Thanksgivings with them.

For those who are deployed, they each cope with this reality in their own ways.

Soldiers and USO Alaska organizers unload holiday bags to deliver to barracks. | Photo credit DVIDS/Sgt. Christopher Dennis

In 2016, Sgt. Major Carl Goss was the lead enlisted soldier of his unit, so he took on some extra responsibility, including making sure his fellow service members were coping, more or less, with being far from home during the holidays.

“Every soldier handles family separation from family, holidays and deployments differently,” he said. “So, we have to be able to relate to them and check in on them.”

These service members are encouraged to stay connected to home by calling and writing letters to their loved ones as much as they can.

Deployed service members often look to each other for togetherness during the holidays, sometimes creating new traditions, and often sharing and recreating their family traditions with their fellow soldiers so they can feel close to home.

“I’m big on family and [Thanksgiving is] my favorite holiday,” said Army Spc. Jerimiah Fish, who was deployed to the Middle East in December 2019.

“So, it was a little rough being away from everybody. But like I said, we try to build a nice community here and we look at each other, a lot of us, as family, so that helped out.”

In addition to celebrating the holidays with their units, many service members also head to their nearest USO.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service member spends time at USO center during holiday season.

For the service members deployed and training on Fort Jackson in South Carolina during the holidays, the USO hosts a “Holiday Holdover” – a series of fun events geared toward young military trainees. Though this programming provides some holiday cheer, it’s the comradery in the centers around the holidays – the cleaning up after meals, swapping recipes, decorating the trees - that truly keeps the soldiers feeling familial.

“We’ll see a group of them come into the USO with ordered pizzas and do their gift exchange here, because to them, the USO is their family living room,” USO volunteer Richard Yeskis said.

How military families stay connected through the season

A service member’s remote deployment location can make it difficult for their families to communicate with them, but with some good planning, they can often make it happen.

“From Fort Bragg to here is a nine hour [time] difference, so it made it a little rough as far as trying to keep in touch, especially everybody’s having dinner and you’re usually in bed,” Fish said back in December 2019.

“But luckily I’m one of the few that has to work the night shifts … and was able to still do a nice FaceTime while everybody was enjoying their [Thanksgiving] dinner and be a part of some of it.”

Organizations like the USO also host events during this festive time of year to help keep these families as connected as possible during the holidays.

For example, this year, the USO held its inaugural USO Trot for the Troops, a virtual 5K run, and it united a deployed service member with his family back home. After Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Guido ran the 5K in Afghanistan, he video-chatted his wife and newborn son so he could “join” them as they did their own 5K, more than 7,000 miles away.

Photo credit USO Photo

Nicole Guido, her son and her sister after video-chatting her Benjamin Guido during the USO Trot for the Troops.

“We were so pumped to do something together on Thanksgiving, especially since we couldn’t share in our first family dinner of the season,” Guido said.

A military spouse and her child get ready to record a book reading for their service member. | Photo credit USO Photo

Service member parents in Spain also got an opportunity to share a holiday experience with their little ones because of a creative twist on a classic USO program. The USO Rota team surprised deployed sailors with book recordings from their spouses and children. Usually, it’s the service members who send videos of themselves reading children’s books home to their kids via the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, but the team wanted to switch things up for the holidays.

For veteran sailor and military spouse Phylicia Hansen-Stitzel, she now understands what it’s like to record a reading as both a deployed soldier and as a spouse at home, since she previously used the program during her service and attended this new holiday event.

“For my family, Christmas was huge and my first deployment away during the holidays, I was really missing home,” she said. “We’re really big bookworms, so I made a video for my nephews and it meant so much to them, and to me. So I came [to the event] to participate on the other side because reading is a nightly routine for my family, and I want my husband to feel a part of it and to still be present in what he’s missing when he’s away.”

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