Soldiers, families brave holiday season without loved ones
November 27, 2006
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, Nov. 27, 2006) - While a time of good tidings for many, for others, the blitz of holiday cheer that starts bombarding the public shortly after Halloween can lead to a serious case of the blues, particularly for people separated from family and friends.
Military-wide, more than 150,000 deployed servicemembers will brave the holidays in combat zones without their family and friends.
"We have a lot of Soldiers separated from families here; a lot deployed to Iraq," said Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Etterbeek, of the 32nd Medical Brigade. "It's important for Soldiers to realize that what they're doing is worthwhile. They are serving something bigger than themselves, and that gives meaning to the sacrifices they're making."
Although a worthy sacrifice, the barrage of cozy family images blasting out from every TV and radio station can evoke the holiday blues in even the most resilient of Soldiers.
This year marked Pvt. Jesus Rodriguez's first Thanksgiving away from home. His hometown of McAllen, Texas, is just 300 miles away from Fort Sam Houston, but it might as well be thousands.
"I won't be home this year. We normally have all of our family and extended family over," said Rodriguez, a trainee from B Company, 264th Medical Battalion, before the holiday weekend. "They'll have fun without me, but I wish I was going to be there. It's kind of depressing."
The best bet for people like Rodriguez, who are separated from loved ones over the holidays, is to rely on others, Etterbeek said.
"Don't isolate yourself. Make a connection with others. The Army family is a great place to start. It's comforting to realize other people are going through the same sacrifices."
Phone calls and e-mails are also useful tools, "but the best forms of communication are letters and cards," the chaplain said. "You can pick them up, read and re-read again."
Additionally, people should be on the look out for signs of depression in their friends both during and after the holiday season, particularly if they are isolating themselves, giving away possessions or mentioning suicide. In that case, "the best thing a friend can do is talk to them, find out what is going on," Etterbeek said. "Let them know there are people out there, like chaplains and counselors, who can help them through a tough time."
Even when surrounded by friends and family, the holidays can be equally tough when a loved one is deployed. The pain of separation, in those cases, is exacerbated by concern for the servicemember, often deployed to unstable places like Iraq or Afghanistan.
On his first deployment after 16 years of service, Sgt. 1st Class Kent Sullivan will be weathering the holidays in Iraq. Despite pressure from family, his wife, Kim, is determined to keep their traditions alive. Like every other year in their marriage, she planned a home-cooked Thanksgiving feast for her three children and friends, as well as a single Soldier from her husband's office.
"My family (in Oregon) invited us to come there for the holidays," said Kim, a school nurse at Green Valley Elementary School in Schertz, Texas. "But if Kent was here, we would spend the holidays at home, and I want to maintain our family traditions.
"We all miss him," she said. "But the holidays are no different than any other day. It's hard no matter what day it is."
She said she finds it useful to dwell on the positive. "It's important to express your emotions, but don't dwell on it. I tell my kids, 'It's OK to miss dad,' but then remind them that it won't be forever. He'll be coming home soon."
In the meantime, Kim is focused on making the holidays brighter for Kent and his comrades overseas. Kim, and her mother in Oregon, are both stocking up items for care packages for Kent and the 15 Soldiers assigned to his platoon.
Her selflessness is right on track. The best way to overcome loneliness or the blues, whether a family left behind or a single Soldier in training, is to serve others, Etterbeek said.
"In giving, we really receive," he said. "Serve food to the homeless or give to Toys for Tots. I've served food to homeless vets on Thanksgiving with Soldiers, and they got more out of it than the people who were served. The best way to serve God is to serve others.
"There's a big difference between being alone and being lonely," he added. "The best way to stop being lonely is to connect to others. Realize there are other people with pain and other people overcoming that pain.
"Whether alone or with family, you can make the holiday one you will never forget."
To help prevent holiday blues, follow these tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Psychological Association, the National Mental Health Association and the Mental Health Association of Colorado:
* Establish realistic goals and expectations for the holiday season, and do not label the holiday season as a time to cure all past problems. The holidays do not prevent sadness or loneliness.
* Limit drinking.
* Do not feel obliged to feel festive. Accept your inner experience and do not force yourself to express specific feelings. If you have recently experienced a tragedy, death or romantic break-up, tell people about your needs.
* To relieve holiday stress, know your spending limit and stick to it. Enjoy holiday activities that are free, such as a drive to look at holiday decorations. Go window shopping without buying anything.
* Express your feelings to those around you in a constructive, honest and open way. If you need to confront someone with a problem, begin your sentences with "I feel."