Away from home for the holidays
by Emily Adams
While most people await the man in the red suit, others will be hoping to hear from someone in a different kind of uniform this Christmas.

That someone is their husband, brother, cousin or even their mother. That someone is a United States soldier who couldn’t be home for the holidays.

Thousands of families throughout the state and country are celebrating Christmas with an empty seat at their dining room table as American soldiers remain overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

A number of local families were affected this summer when nearly 300 soldiers from the Alabama Army National Guard’s 1/167th Infantry Battalion were deployed to Afghanistan in July. About 200 soldiers from Headquarters, Headquarters Company and Company E in Talladega were sent along with about 70 from Company D in Sylacauga.

In the six months they have been gone, their families back home have been through a lot of ups and downs, and the impending holidays aren’t making their absence any easier, said Company D Family Readiness Group chairwoman Rebecca Milam.

“We all stay strong for each other, but I know it’s hard on the kids,” she said, “especially at this time of year.”

Milam’s husband, Brian, whose rank she requested remain private, is part of the group now stationed at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. She and the 71 other military families she coordinates with through their FRG have done as much as they can to ensure their soldiers feel at home on Christmas, even from the other side of the world.

“For Christmas, we sent him four boxes, and two weeks before that we sent him a tree with decorations and battery-powered lights and all kinds of stuff so that he doesn’t miss out on anything,” Milam said.

The couple’s three children, Daniel, 18, Jessica, 17, and Savanna, 11, helped her wrap gifts in Christmas paper — gifts that their dad assured them will remain under his tree until Christmas Day.

“I told him, ‘You better not open anything before Christmas,’ and he said, ‘All right, I promise,’” Milam said. “So, we’ve just tried to do little things like that to make it special for them, because they are the ones who have to be away.”

Many of the families Milam communicates with have even set up a specific time to video chat with their soldier on Christmas.

“During the day here is night for them, so the soldiers try to pick a time that they are sure they’ll be in their room to talk,” she said. “We’ll all be with our whole families, so you’ll be able to Skype and everybody can see them, and they can be part of it.”

Other families, though, will be lingering near the phone for that much-anticipated call. Brenda Cochran of Talladega, whose husband, Sgt. Ricky Cochran, deployed with the Headquarters Unit, said she and her three adult sons, Cornelius, Shyquan and Sharrod, are planning to hear from their soldier between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A phone call usually lasts about 20 minutes, she said.

“I hope we’ll be able to talk on Christmas Day, but he travels a lot, so it’s hard to plan exactly when it’ll be,” Cochran said. “Normally, he’ll e-mail and let me know, and even then, he could lose the phone connection, but he’ll keep trying. We just try to stay close to the phone so if he does call, we’re there.”

Despite her best intentions, Cochran said her husband only wanted one thing this holiday.

“He wanted his favorite kind of dip,” she said. “It was peach-flavored Timber Wolf, I think. I was going to send some other things, but he just wanted certain items. He’s been in the military for 30 plus years, and he’s set in his ways, so I know I just need to get him whatever he wants.”

He also requested basic items they can’t find in Afghanistan, like baking soda and distilled water, she said. Milam said she regularly sends different hard-to-find snack items like chips, sweets and energy drinks.

Gifts from family aren’t the only things soldiers have received this Christmas though — their communities remembered them as well. Milam said First United Methodist Church in Sylacauga sent Company D care packages and Christmas cards, as did Pinecrest Elementary School and Clanton and Coosa Central middle schools. EBSCO Industries also sent boxes of toys for the Afghan children and some snacks and candy.

“Besides the families that send things to the soldiers, something that comes from the communities means a lot to them,” Milam said. “It brightens their day to know that they are not forgotten back here at home.”

Fourteen soldiers were also “adopted” by different families that have pledged to support a soldier who otherwise was not receiving mail.

“They notice who’s not getting mail, and the sergeants start writing down names and send it back to us,” Milam said. “As soon as we got the list of people, it was less than an hour, and the 14 soldiers were adopted. It’s just been like, wow, amazing.”

Soldiers and their families have received exceptional support from around the state since the unit deployed, Milam said.

“A lot of our families have support from their neighbors, the community, family members, churches that join in and help them,” she said. “As soon as they knew the soldiers were leaving, it was like people started doing whatever they could. It was ungodly how many people were at our going away ceremony. I never expected that many, ever. And we hope our coming home ceremony is even bigger.”

They are expected to return from deployment next summer; although an official date will not be announced until spring. In the meantime, families are anticipating the return of their soldiers, many of whom left behind shoes that simply cannot be filled.

“When your husband leaves, you have to be the mom, the dad, the counselor, the everything,” Cochran said. “And he is mostly the financial wizard in the house, so I definitely miss that part. I was looking forward to his homecoming before he even left.”

Much will have changed since the units departed last July — some people left behind newborn children or a newly wed spouse — and although the past year will have been filled with difficulty for most everyone involved, none of that will matter when they arrive home safely, Milam said.

“I know what they’re doing is very, very important,” she said, “and I appreciate every one of them for what they do, but we just want them back safe.”

And how will it feel the day they finally welcome their soldiers home? Milam put it simply.

“It’ll be like Christmas.”

© 2012