Family away from family

Story by Staff Sgt. Robert Petersen

Well for some Soldiers it is easy to be out on your own and away from home, but for others it is a very trying time being deployed.

There are so many things that are missed while you're away, especially when it's for 15 months. There are events such as birthdays, parties, your typical weekend off, your children's school and sporting events, anniversaries, and of course the holidays, that all go by out of normal routine during that time.

The best thing to do is to make the most out of it, and try not to get down during these times. The Army does a great job of trying to help the Soldiers adjust and keep active, but let's face it, it's just not the same as if they were celebrated with your immediate family.

One way to make the most out of the holiday season is to decorate. Yes it's true that there are many different religions, origins, ethnic backgrounds and traditions throughout the military, so make sure that it's all right with everyone and try to include a little bit of everything from everyone's preference. Luckily when my Soldiers and I celebrated the holiday season, we were able to agree on everything that was displayed, and it did bring a sense of calm to the shop.

Our plan for Christmas was one that is pretty common and practiced in a lot of work areas all over the place, not just the military. We decided to go the route of the "grab-bag" or "secret Santa" exchange. We placed all of the Soldiers' names that were participating, in a hat, (which was all eight of us) and then we picked names blindly. We had an agreement that we wouldn't over-spend, so we set a low dollar amount for gifts (which was completely voluntarily).

So, right around Christmas day we played our Christmas music on our shop computer and proceeded on to exchanging gifts. Everything went smooth, and it was a good day. It really brought up the spirits of the guys-we had a great time. There were some laughs, and it was truly a time of camaraderie. After everything was handed out, and all thanks were given, it was back to work as normal.

Of course the base dining facilities (DFAC) were very festive and they had decorations up and served traditional Christmas dishes. So if it's the home cooked meal that you're missing, they do their best to cater to that. You can definitely go into the DFAC with an empty stomach and leave the place like you would as if you were at home. Granted, you can't just roll off of the dining chair onto a big comfy couch, but you can feel free to sit until closing time without actually being booted out. If it's the leftovers that you're missing, there's normally no problem with you getting a to-go plate so that you can make that turkey sandwich for lunch the next day.

So to all the Soldiers that I've had the great opportunity to celebrate the holiday seasons with: thank you for all of your hard work, for helping to make the most of the holidays, and for being the family away from my family.

Christmas in Iraq

Story by James Allen

Christmas in Iraq was quite interesting. I was a soldier in Bravo 1/5 FA stationed in Baghdad, Iraq. I remember spending the holiday on duty. However that isn't the focus of the story.

Being deployed in itself is always tough. However, spending Christmas away from loved ones back home is even harder. Because there weren't "special" days off, each holiday seemed like just another day at the office.

What made Christmas of 2006 special in Iraq was the kindness shown by strangers. Whilst on deployment I signed up with "Soldiers' Angels." Through that network, I met many amazing individuals that strove to make my time deployed as comfortable as possible.

My greatest memory of that otherwise mundane holiday was receiving letters, gifts and sweets made by my Soldiers' Angels. It was special because many of the gifts that were sent to me were timed to arrive around Christmas. There was nothing more rewarding than coming back off of shift to find a letter or package waiting for you.

The most significant accomplishment that resulted from Christmas of 2006 in Iraq was the creation of a poem that I wrote that would be later dedicated to a Soldier that lost his life in Iraq.

James Allen's original poem follows:

A Soldier's Sacrifice

You are Brother, Father, Son, and friend

Sister, Mother, Wife, and Daughter

When the call to duty came

You answered, giving of yourself

You left the comforts of home

For the uncertainty of war

You said your goodbyes to those
that cared about you

What made you make this

The answer is clear

You believed in what you were

Selflessly you abandoned the
safety net of home

Cast aside your civilian life

Joined a greater cause

Some would say to liberate a

Free a people in bondage

The mission was dangerous

Your lives placed in peril

Knowing the possible outcome
you went anyway

Fighting against an unyielding

Spending sleepless nights

For an enemy masked in darkness

Wondering if you would make it
home alive

You watched your battle
buddies die

Strangers you had met in the

Are now brothers in the end

For some, home will never be seen

A distant memory of the past

You will lay down your life to save

To protect your fellow Soldiers so
that they may live

For a better tomorrow

You make the greatest sacrifice

Giving up what is most dear

The life you could have lived

For those that are left behind;

There is no complaining

The questions will come later

Silent determination remains

The enemy will not win

There will be loss

Tears shed for those that will not
come home

Brothers in arms

The journey began as strangers

Now they are your brothers

Uniforms stained with blood and

So determined to achieve victory

These proud Soldiers

Kindred spirits working together

For a greater good

This is for you who have sacri
ficed so much

To make a stand for what you
believe in

In memory of Spc. Benjamin

Supporter story

Story by Nora Child

My family adopted Pfc. Michael Fields-Bradley. Michael is in Iraq and he is 27 years old.

He was also trying to sign up one of his fellow Soldiers that he felt really needed some extra support. That touched my heart. I emailed him to ask for more information on his friend. He emailed back and continued to do so every time I emailed him. He was so kind and polite. He seemed to be reaching out for a friend so I took him under my wing and have been so thankful since then. He has become our household hero. Michael is from Detroit. Being from Detroit he just has to be a Pistons fan. The Pistons were doing extremely well last year and Michael said he could smell a championship coming on for the Pistons. My family lives in San Antonio. Being in San Antonio, we are Spurs fans all the way-Go Spurs, Go! I am trying hard to convert Michael to a Spurs fan but that is no easy task! We have sent him a few Spurs items. (Slowly breaking him in, I hope!)

One of the items that Michael mentioned he needed was a pillow. His was as flat as a pancake. We did send him a pillow, but also decided every new pillow needs a new pillowcase. I looked a long time to find something with the Spurs and Pistons on it. I finally had to use wallpaper from the Detroit Pistons' Web site. The best one I could find was when the Pistons played the Spurs here in San Antonio on Jan. 10, 2008. Sadly for me, it was one of the games that the Spurs lost last year. Michael was shocked that I would send him a pillowcase with the Pistons beating the Spurs on it. I told him it was NOT easy for me to do! I prayed the Spurs would win the March 14th game against the Pistons. They didn't. Michael tells me the pillowcase is his favorite thing he has gotten so far. He tells me he sleeps with it every night and also takes it along on his missions!

We have grown to be good friends (with Michael) over the last nine months. We look forward to meeting Michael once he is back here in the USA.

I am so glad to have been able to boost this Soldier's morale. What he doesn't know is how big of an impact he has made on me and my family's life. I am so proud to be able to do my part to support the men and women who are deployed on our behalf. I am so proud of my Soldier, Pfc. Michael Fields-Bradley.

The holidays in Afghanistan

Story by Sgt. Phillip Andrew Smith

I was in Afghanistan in 2006 to March 2007 with the 35th Military Police Detachment.

During the Holidays it snowed a lot over there, I mean like a month straight it never seemed to stop. We had snowball fights, and in one instance it was the Army guys versus the Air Force guys (of course we ran all the Air Force guys out of the camp).

We built a snowman just to remind us of home. It had been a while since I'd built one and I felt like a kid again back home in Alabama (that is where I'm from, by the way Jasper, Ala.).

For some reason they liked to pack the snow down in the camps with steam rollers so it was like you were ice skating every time you stepped outside. I busted my butt so many times. We did have a party on Christmas-it was fun (it was only a few of us though).

Other than that I pretty much worked my way through the rest of the holidays. We just had to kind of do things that we did back home just to keep our morale and spirits up.

Small thanks

Story by Tracy Van Ooort

November 2006 changed me. Prior to then, I had been thankful for the American troops but not involved. But one fall day, I adopted a deployed Soldier and my involvement changed. Suddenly the sacrifices the Soldiers were making, and the dangers they faced every day became real for me. I needed to do my part!

I have never been a Soldier myself but I imagine that the holidays get especially lonely when deployed overseas. The Soldiers miss out on simple holiday preparations and most of all they miss time with their families. That first year we wanted our Soldier to feel a part our preparations and celebrations. As we decorated our Christmas tree we took photos, emailing them so he would feel included in our celebration. We made candies and found presents to send. We discussed the sacrifices he was making while we wrapped the surprises my sons had selected. Our family wanted to ensure our Soldier did not feel forgotten.

My family has adopted many Soldiers since that time. We have had the honor of writing these Soldiers weekly and sending care packages often. We've packed birthday parties in a box. My children have even had birthday parties in our house and taken pictures as they blew out candles and ate the cake that had been baked for our Soldiers. We celebrated the Soldiers on their special day! Packing Christmas care packages brings special joy to our house. Last year we found four-foot-long Christmas stockings and little jingle bell trees to send. CDs of Christmas music by Elvis, Bing Crosby or Alvin and the Chipmunks were included. A DVD of "A Christmas Story" was packed. Santa hats, candy canes, chocolates and presents wrapped in holiday paper filled each box. Our Sunday school class made banners and a big nine-foot paper pine tree. The seven-year-old kids stood in the hallways and encouraged church members to come in and write words of encouragement to the Soldiers on cardboard ornaments to be hung on their tree. We wanted to make sure the Soldiers felt loved, appreciated, and remembered. The kids were thrilled when one Soldier emailed us photos showing the banner on display in Iraq.

In addition to sending care packages to the Soldiers, last Christmas my family also had the privilege of playing "Santa" to a couple military families with small children who would be spending the holidays without their daddy. It was important to us to let both the Soldiers and their families know that we understood the total sacrifice they were all making.

Since November 2006, I have become friends with some fantastic men and women serving in our military. I work to make sure they feel supported and know that their service does not go unnoticed. I now volunteer every week for Adopt a U.S. Soldier, the organization that I initially joined to adopt that very first Soldier. I have yet to meet any of my adopted Soldiers face to face, but maybe someday I will have the opportunity to shake their hand, give them a hug and thank them in person for all they have done.

Lifted spirits

Story by Staff Sgt. William Underwood

I was in Iraq for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years 2004. The holidays were one of the hardest times to be over here and I am dreading it already. You miss your family and friends every day, but the holidays are so much harder.

In 2004 I was deployed with the 458th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. We ran counter IED patrols around Baghdad. The holidays were rough for us that year, as we had lost one of our Soldiers in an ambush.

A business in my hometown, Crutchfield (which is a home and auto electronics store), had contacted me about wanting to send us gifts for the holidays. They sent us portable DVD players and DVDs, which I was able to distribute to the guys in my unit in time for Christmas. It really lifted our spirits. On Christmas Eve, I went around and put gifts on the guys' steps, so when they woke up they found the gifts. It brought a little bit of tradition from home to Iraq.

The Caughman family (Thomas Caughman was our Soldier who was killed) was in our thoughts as we went out on patrol that night. We all felt the pain of what that first Christmas without Tommy was like. He and his family remain in our thoughts.