The holidays are here and for a lot of families, the end of 2005 marks the beginning of spending time with loved ones they haven't seen for more than a year. But for two southeast Kansas families, the holidays will be a little different.
Soldiers of the 891st Engineer Battalion returned home Dec. 17 from Fort Sill, Okla., after serving a year in Iraq, to families and the whole of southeast Kansas with arms wide open. For soldiers of the 414th Military Police Company, of Joplin, Mo., and other units, the majority of their tour of duty and time away from their families lies ahead of them. And in the meantime, which falls over the holidays, soldiers' families cope with the time they have left until their soldiers come home.
For Kim Vogel, of Pittsburg, it's not hard to see other soldiers come home, with her husband, Jesse, still in Iraq. It's sad, she said, but then again, she tears up at any homecoming, even before Jesse left. "We'd watch TLC 'Operation Homecoming' and I'd be balling through those before he even left.
"But I'm grateful that those guys have made it home. And to know that they're home and back with their families and safe is a relief," Kim said. "Because I understand that feeling of not knowing if they'll make it home in time for the holidays."
It's not the first
time Jesse's been away from home during the holidays - this is his
third deployment. Jesse was home for Christmas last year but was gone
for it in 2003, when he deployed to Afghanistan.
He left on Labor Day in September of this year and was home for four days the week before Thanksgiving.
The main struggle for Kim with Jesse gone during the holidays is feeling festive about the season and getting everything ready.
"It's hard to go out and shop and do all this stuff and get prepared, when you're kind of thinking of them. Your mind's with them a lot," Kim said. "Just trying to psyche yourself up to be excited about it because you know to them, it's just another working day."
At the time, it was 10 days out and Kim hadn't shopped yet. So how does she get into the holiday mood?
She has a 2 and 4-year-old who get excited about everything. "You have to kind of take some joy in the little things that they see.
"That kind of brings you back down to earth and what it's all about. It's about them having fun and getting experiences and memories, so you have to go ahead and make sure you create all of that for them, regardless of if your husband's home or not. You can't disappoint them."
The everyday tasks are harder to get done, Kim said, but being the third time that Jesse's been deployed, family and friends have gotten used to pitching in whenever they can. And it helps to know she's got stuff to do every day like getting 2-year-old Kaden and 4-year-old Liberty to daycare and then going to work.
"That's the one thing that kind of makes it go a little bit easier is knowing every day you've got things to do, and people are expecting you to fulfill obligations," Kim said.
Kaden doesn't really understand what's going on, but he knows something's up because Jesse's not there. During the four days Jesse was home on leave, Kim said, Kaden wouldn't let him out of his sight. And Liberty also went through some adjustments with her dad being gone, but it's something they've both kind of gotten used to.
"We, unfortunately, have gotten pretty accustomed to getting done what we need to get done because it's sad to say, but it's almost become our lifestyle now," Kim said.
And for the most part, things don't really change all that much for the holidays when Jesse isn't here. Kim and the kids spend a lot of time with her family, and there'll be video and pictures he can look at.
The little things Jesse misses are what's harder for the both of them. Jesse missed Kaden's second birthday and will probably not be there for his third.
"Just knowing that he's going to miss all their milestones throughout the year is harder because we'll have more Christmases, hopefully," Kim said.
Kim's holiday wish for Jesse is the same thing she always tells him.
"Bring yourself and your soldiers home safely," Kim said. "And that next year, we spend Christmas together as a family."
'It's harder on this side'
Spc. Jason Melvin, from Arma, shipped out with Jesse as part of the approximately 124-soldier unit. And it has taken a parents' unconditional love of their son to understand the decision he made: to volunteer to go with the unit to Iraq.
In an Aug. 25 interview, Jason said he volunteered after some of his friends had been talking about volunteering to go. It's just something he had to do, he said.
Jason's father, John, served in the Navy, so the military has been something he's grown up with. Jason has been in the reserves for about six years and deployed four times.
"I've just been around it for as long as I can remember, so it's just kind of a part of me," Jason said.
It was a very hard decision for him, said Jason's mom, Mary. Jason only had a year of school left and "thinking with his head he really shouldn't have gone, thinking with his heart that was the only place for him to go."
And while John and Mary support their son 100 percent, it's not easy being without him. So what is it like?
"Stressful," John said, with tears welling up.
John was in the Navy for more than 20 years, Mary said, and didn't really expect his son to follow in his footsteps. So John has been on both sides of the spectrum - in the military and now as a parent.
"It's harder on this side," John said of being the parent.
"All parents - their kids grow up and move away. So that's normal. The hard part is knowing that he's not safe," Mary said. "That he's not living just in a town you know a hundred miles away or 200 miles away. And that he's not safe, and he can't just come home for the weekend."
Jason's birthday falls on Thanksgiving. For his 21st, Jason was in Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. He spent a birthday in Afghanistan, and he spent his 25th birthday this year in Iraq.
And with the holidays, Mary and John can't call him. They don't have contact with Jason until he finds a way to reach them. They put up signs to welcome home soldiers of the 891st and while it was a little difficult having them come home when their son hasn't, Mary said it was Jason's decision to go. He's extremely loyal, he believes in his country and he stands up for his friends, she said.
"This is what he needed to do," Mary said. "And so all we can do is support him, trust that he'll come home and pray for him and miss him.
Christmas is going to be hard. It's a close family, Mary said, and it's going to be very hard not knowing where he's at or what he's doing.
But during the rough times, one thing remains certain.
"We're very proud of him," they both said.
BYLINE1:Staff Writer Stephanie Farley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-2600, Ext. 137.