Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” touched the hearts of soldiers and civilians alike when it was first recorded in 1943. The final, melancholy lines: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” touch upon a reality that is all too familiar for our Veterans, Service Members, and their Families. Since only 1% of the nation serves, most Americans find it difficult to comprehend what it means to be away from home for months at a time, let alone around the holidays.
Home Base’s three-generation model of care was pioneered with the understanding that, “When one family member serves, the entire family serves.” To help Service Members and their families prepare for the holidays, we asked our Veteran Outreach and Family teams to share tips on how to keep the holiday spirit alive when a loved one is far from home.
Home Base’s Director of Peer Outreach and Support, Command Sergeant Major Bill Davidson, has two deployments under his belt. He kept his spirits up during his deployments by surrounding himself with photos of his family.
“I would try to call as much as I could to stay up with the happenings back home,” Davidson said. “For me, keeping busy while deployed helped me take my mind off being away from my family.”
In the day in age of Skype and Instagram, the communication channels between a Service Member and his or her family are nearly always open. However, this does not render the separation any less profound. For young children, especially, it can be difficult to understand how long their mother or father will be away from home.
Davidson’s wife, Leslie, helped their two daughters visualize how long their father would be deployed by providing each daughter with a jar filled with 365 pieces of candy. Each day, his daughters would remove a piece of candy from the jar.
“They would see the jar of candy go down and visually know I’d be home soon,” said Davidson. “They also made a weekly care package for me that included the local newspapers, handmade drawings, and videos of them [his daughters] wishing me a Merry Christmas.”
Another member of the Home Base Veteran Outreach Team, Patrick Smith, is also no stranger to time overseas.
“Deployments are definitely harder on the family members than on the Soldier,” Smith explained. “I would just increase my workload in order to stay so busy all I did was work and sleep.”
He relied on the “brotherhood” that is characteristic of the military to help him get through his time away.
“We rallied around each other and helped everyone get through it,” he adds.
The rest of the Outreach Team echoed this sentiment, recalling a Thanksgiving dinner consumed on top of Humvees, or ice cream sundaes served on a base, or a holiday spent watching movies with friends to help pass time that otherwise might be spent missing loved ones back home.
Oftentimes, it seems it’s the little things that can make a big difference during a deployment.
“I had a very good friend who was also in the military, and he would call my wife every week even if just to ask her ‘do you need anything?’ or ‘are you doing ok?’ and that meant the world to her,” Smith said. “It still sticks with her 6 years later.”
During his deployment, Smith’s family sent him real Irish Oatmeal and Irish Cheese, in addition to photos from events he couldn’t attend. During his later deployments, he could connect with his family every one to two days.
While Smith admits that being away from home during the holidays is never easy, having a support system and photos of family can help.
Shiri Cohen, PhD, Director of Couples Services at Home Base, had some advice for the families left behind, in particular.
“Given the separations, understand that it’s natural and understandable to have mixed feelings around the holidays – worry, sadness, and loneliness – and the need to let those feelings out,” Cohen said.
Military couples and families often struggle to talk about or share those feelings, and lines of communication can be easily twisted during a separation. Families should try to be patient with the miscommunication that can often happen with loved ones around the holidays.
“Much of communication is nonverbal and emotional in nature, so loved ones frequently misinterpret each other and take this as a sign that something may be awry,” she explained. “Just remember that scrambled communication is NOT a sign of love or caring, but a reality of being apart.”
For those struggling with communication, Cohen suggested writing letters as a means for the Service Member and his or her family to have a way of understanding the experiences they have had apart and in the absence of one another.
“Remember to reassure one another of how much you miss and care about each other, because it can be easy to forget when physically apart and under a lot of stress,” added Cohen.
In addition to the tips our team provided above, check out the additional tips below to help you and your family get through this holiday season. And – as always – our team is here to help if you have any questions: 617-724-5202.