Military Families Weather Holidays, Deployments

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"It has been tough," said Flotten, whose husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Flotten, is deployed to Iraq. "We're just trying to keep things simple this year. We got a tree, but one I could bring into the house by myself. Our expectations are much lower. We're trying, just on a much smaller scale."

The Flottens are one of the thousands of military families throughout the nation who will have an empty chair at the holiday dinner table this year due to deployments.

"Every day is a struggle, but we're trying to keep our chins up," Flotten said. "I now realize how often I relied on him to calm my emotions."

Army Chaplain (Col.) Thomas Preston, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, said he knows first-hand how tough the holidays can be for military families.

"My daughter is married to a Special Forces soldier who is deploying right after the holidays ? again. It's his fifth tour," he said. "That already has cast a cloud over our celebration."

Despite feelings to the contrary, it's important to keep holiday traditions alive, and even take them up a notch, Preston said. "I would augment them," he said. "Do all the regular things, and then do some extra things to connect with your spouse, to have your kids connect with their parent. You can make a video, make special cards and write letters.

"You don't want to disrupt a routine," he continued. "The kids want Mommy and Daddy to come home, but it's still important to wake up and see something under the tree, to have Grandma and Grandpa come visit, to go to parties. Just add to those traditions."

Navy spouse Vivian Greentree created a new tradition this year to keep her deployed husband close at hand. She made a holiday card with her two boys and herself holding a "Daddy on a Stick" to represent her husband.

"I just figured, why not have fun with it?" she said. "And, it is a reminder of what we went though, and we can even frame it to keep as a keepsake. It's different and fun, and just a way to be creative and enjoy the goodness of the season while having someone deployed."

Isabel Hodge, wife of Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bruce Hodge, said she plans to stretch her holiday traditions past the normal season.

"I've decided to keep our tree up until he comes home at the end of January," said Hodge, whose husband has been deployed in Iraq for nearly a year. "All of his presents that couldn't be mailed will be there, under the tree, waiting for him."

Her husband has been gone for more holidays than she cares to count, she said, but technology has managed to ease the separations somewhat. "We will probably [video teleconference] on Christmas Day," she said. "Hopefully, it will happen as the kids are tearing open their presents. He loves watching us open our gifts first.

"I do think the separation has been a lot easier this time, because they've been able to use social-networking tools to communicate with their dad," she added. "I love it because even though my daughter is in college, they can still VTC with each other."

Flotten said she also will rely on technology to bring her husband "home" for the holidays. "We're hoping to 'Skype' with him on Christmas," she said. "But that will all depend on if he can get into the room over there."

While it's tough to be separated, Hodge said, over the years she has learned the importance of finding support.

"You should be aware that you're not alone," the 21-year military spouse said. "There are other military spouses in your unit that understand how you feel, because they are going through it, too."

Preston said he tends to crave "alone time" when he's feeling blue, but that he doesn't give in to that impulse.

"The worst thing you can do is be alone," he said. "Don't become a hermit. Spend time with friends in a constructive way. Get active with a family support group. Take part in unit activities."

Preston also emphasized the importance of talking to a trained counselor -- such a chaplain, behavioral specialist or primary care physician -- if there's a need. "Talking to someone is critically important," he said. "Don't internalize it."

And if you see someone going through a tough time, "Don't take no for an answer," Preston said. "Stay with them lovingly, and prod them gently to join your family, to participate in an activity.

"It's easy to let someone say, 'No thanks,' and then in return say, 'OK, I tried,'" she said. "But if you really care, don't leave it at that."