Military Spouses Navigate the Holidays with Service Members Deployed to Eastern Europe

By Danielle DeSimone

When you say the word “deployment,” your first thought might be “service member.” After all, they’re the ones deploying to the front lines, carrying out missions in sometimes dangerous or austere conditions and spending long periods of time away from home and loved ones.

However, “deployment” also applies to the military spouses and military children that are left behind. They must face their own set of challenges during the months – or year – apart from their service member and, in their own way, they “serve” too.

It can be an incredibly difficult and stressful time for military families – and this is only exacerbated by the holiday season. In a time when friends and family members are coming together to celebrate generations-old traditions, these military families must face the season apart.

Anita Shipley and Angel Ramirez – two military spouses of service members currently deployed to the front lines of Eastern Europe – share their experiences of deployment during the holidays, and how the USO has been there to support them.

Military Spouses Face Challenges During Their Service Member’s Deployment

Both Anita Shipley and Angel Ramirez knew what they were signing up for when they married their respective spouses. Both milspouses had grown up in military families themselves, and so they were prepared for the constant moves to new cities or countries, the long periods of time apart, the uncertainty that comes with daily military life.

“But it’s harder when your kids don’t sign up for [military life],” Angel said. “I think that’s the hardest part for me. Because I know there’s another way that we could live.”

For military children, being separated from a parent during their deployment can be especially painful during the holiday season. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Angel is originally from San Antonio, Texas, and is currently stationed in Baumholder, Germany, with her husband and 4-year-old son, Ollie. However, approximately nine months ago, her husband Adam – a member of the U.S. Army – was deployed to Eastern Europe. Adam had previously deployed to Kuwait, which, although certainly a challenging deployment, only lasted a few months. But this deployment to Eastern Europe has already been nine months and counting; by the time he returns home, it may be close to a year since his departure.

Angel explained that their son Ollie often asks for his father late at night, or when he’s upset, and it can be difficult to tell him that he can’t speak to his dad when he wants or needs to. And in addition to “solo parenting” as her husband is deployed, Angel is also navigating a foreign country on her own, as their family is stationed overseas. Because of this, her support networks of family members and friends are an entire ocean away, and she must rely only on herself and her surrounding military community to navigate this deployment.

Photo credit USO Photo

Many military children struggle to adapt to their military parent’s absence during deployment.

Meanwhile, Anita – originally from Austin, Texas – and her husband have moved six times to five different states and one tour in Grafenwohr, Germany. Her husband, who is also a member of the U.S. Army, is currently deployed to Poland in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Her husband has previously deployed to the Middle East twice, three years altogether, but since having children, he had only undertaken a brief, eight-month mission in Arizona. Otherwise, this is the family’s first long deployment since they’ve had children. As he serves in Poland, Anita has been holding down the fort alone in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with their two kids, Charlie and Marie, ages 8 and 10.

Anita’s children in Kentucky have also struggled with their father’s deployment. Both children are also autistic, which is an added challenge in their handling of the deployment.

“It is emotional, especially for my kids. They took it hard,” Anita said. “I just didn’t realize how stressful [deployment] is with kids,” she admitted.

With her husband on deployment for the past several months, Anita has essentially been functioning as a solo parent. After school, Charlie and Marie go to therapy three days out of the week, as well as ninja classes and basketball practice. Aside from the work she does at her children’s school, Anita also makes homemade printed shirts, mugs and other items, which she must balance on her own between all of her children’s activities.

“It’s a constant go, go, go,” she said.

As a result, inevitably, things like housekeeping or laundry or even time for personal hobbies and activities fall through the cracks. However, Anita prefers to keep busy.

“I focus on other things other than my husband being gone.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Anita Shipley pictured here with her husband, who is currently deployed to Poland. The USO is committed to serving military spouse as they serve in their own way.

And this, of course, is the hardest part of deployment. Having to take on all of the responsibilities of both parents is certainly a challenge, but above all else, it is incredibly difficult for military families to be separated from one another for nine months to a year. In fact, studies show that “amount of time away from family” was ranked one of – if not the – top issues for military families today.

Anita’s family stays in touch with her husband by messaging and video calling on Wi-Fi as he serves in Poland, however the time difference has been difficult for the family of four. Her husband usually is available to talk when her kids are already at school.

Photo credit USO Photo

A military spouse and his children speak with their deployed family member during the holidays.

Angel and Ollie also utilize video calls to stay in touch with Adam, but those calls are limited.

“When we do talk to him, he is absolutely exhausted,” Angel said. “So we don’t get to talk for very long.”

Even as these military spouses are trying to help their children navigate the challenges of deployment and separation from their fathers, they themselves are dealing with the stress and emotional toll of being separated from their husbands. Keeping up a brave face through it all can certainly have an effect on military families – and this becomes even more challenging during the holidays.

How Military Spouses Navigate the Holidays Alone During Deployment

“Christmas is the holiday that my husband absolutely loves,” Angel said. “Last year when he was here, we were doing the gingerbread houses and decorating the tree together. Every year we’ve been getting one new ornament that our son picks, and we put that on the tree. And we haven’t done any of that this year.”

It can be incredibly difficult to continue to celebrate the holidays when part of your family is missing. For Angel and Ollie, this has been made even more challenging in the fact that Adam is usually the one to lead the charge on celebrating Christmas.

Angel explained that as of mid-December, she still hasn’t decorated their house for Christmas.

“There’ve been a few times where I could have put the tree up and put the decorations up already,” she said. “I just haven’t quite felt like it yet because it’s different without him being here.”

However, Angel has still made an effort to make sure Ollie gets to celebrate the holidays by bringing him to holiday events and activities on base in Germany, including a recent USO holidays photoshoot for families of deployed service members. Angel and Ollie dressed up in matching Grinch sweaters to take a photo in front of the festive backdrop, and then sent the photo to Adam as a surprise.

Anita has also worked to provide her children with some holiday magic while their father is away.

Anita Shipley with her husband and two children.

“We went and got a real tree, because that’s our thing,” Anita said. “I told my husband, ‘We’re going to do it. They love it, so we’re going to stick to it.’ We went, got a tree and decorated it the next day.”

Then, after lugging a live tree home on her own, Anita realized she also had to pull down all the boxes of Christmas decorations for the house. It’s small moments like these in which the absence of their spouse, their teammate in both big and small things, becomes all the more apparent to military spouses of deployed service members.

But through it all, there are a few resources these military spouses can always rely on: their communities, and the USO.

Military Spouses Lean on Their Communities and the USO for Support

“I’m just trying to keep it up, keep it going,” Anita said. “Just keep it positive for my kids and helping them with this hard time that we’re going through.”

Anita has created a “deployment wall” with a calendar that counts down until her husband’s return. The wall also includes a large jar of candy, with each piece representing one day that he is away. Each day, her children get to eat one piece of candy, to symbolize one less day until their father returns.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Anita and her family in a photo taken before her husband’s most recent deployment.

She has also relied on the support of her military community. Anita discussed both the challenges and the upsides of being a military spouse, and how both can be somewhat summed up in one situation: When first moving to a new location, she often has to approach her new neighbors and ask, almost immediately upon meeting them, if they’d be comfortable being her emergency contact.

“When you first move here, you need that one person to put on your emergency contact to pick up your kids just in case, go knock on the door, and be like, ‘Can you do this for me? Can you be my person?’”

Although it might seem odd to ask a stranger to be your emergency contact, in the military community, that’s just everyday life. And the beauty of that community is that the answer from the neighbor – without hesitation – is almost always a resounding ‘yes.’

Anita explained how one of her neighbors has regularly invited Anita and her children to her house, or along on outings with her own children, so that they can share dinners or activities together.

Anita and her family have also used the USO throughout their time in the military, especially when they were previously stationed in Germany. Anita used their local USO center as a second living room where her children could go to play and she could spend time with other spouses. Her family has also utilized USO airport lounges as a place of refuge during long layovers.

Photo credit USO Photo

The USO offers programs and services to military children and military families at many of our more than 275 USO locations around the globe.

Even with her limited free time during this deployment, Anita recently made time to attend a USO Coffee Connections event to spend time with other military spouses. USO Coffee Connections are gatherings that allow military spouses to relax in a comfortable setting, share advice, learn about local events, network for job opportunities, or simply make new friends over a cup of coffee. Since the program’s inception, some of these events have grown far beyond coffee, offering military spouses with a variety of activities and community outings that help military spouses meet other spouses within their community.

Photo credit USO Photo

At USO Coffee Connection events and other military spouse-focused events, MilSpouses can meet and bond with others in their community. Here, military spouses stationed in Italy chat at an olive oil tasting in Vicenza, Italy.

This can be especially helpful during a deployment, as many civilians cannot fully understand the challenges that military spouses face on a daily basis. In fact, according to the 2021 Blue Star Families’ Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 70% of active-duty military family members do not feel a sense of belonging to their local civilian community**.

That’s why having the opportunity to build relationships with other military spouses to lean on and connect with is so important – and is why the USO creates opportunities for them to do so at these events.

Angel has also worked hard to keep Ollie active and distracted during his father’s deployment. This includes everything from regular visits to the library, to visiting parks and play groups, to attending USO Baumholder events and activities.

She explained that her mother-in-law and uncle, who are both back home in San Antonio, have been a “blessing.” Angel is very close to both family members, and they have been incredibly supportive of her throughout the entire deployment, even from hundreds of miles away.

“They’re the two main people that allow me to vent to them and not be strong when I need it.”

Photo credit USO Photo

At USO Centers, military kids can find comfort in spending time with other children who understand the unique challenges they face in the military.

Angel and Ollie also regularly spend time in the USO Baumholder center. In addition to the USO’s organized military family activities, Ollie also loves to simply play with the toys and video games the center has for military children, which also gives him a chance to spend time with other military kids his age, who might also be facing similar challenges.

Angel also agreed that one of the greatest advantages to life as a military spouse is the people you meet along the way.

“I have some really good friendships because of where we have lived and the people we’ve gotten to meet” she said.

Although they don’t wear a uniform, our nation’s military spouses certainly serve too – and that is why, as members of the military community, they deserve our support. And while they face challenges year-round, it is especially important to provide that step up during deployments, when they need support the most.

Anita explained that at times when she’s been overwhelmed by the realities of deployment and all that it entails, the tables have turned, and her daughter has stepped up to offer some support in return.

“I just lay there, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much to do,’” Anita said.

But then her daughter will reassure her with the can-do attitude that is so typical of military children and military families in general: “It’s okay, mom. We got this.”

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