When Ramona Olden first learned her daughter Nicole, 21, was to be deployed by the Air Force to an undisclosed location several months ago, she couldn't sleep at night. Staff Sergeant Olden, a single parent, would have to leave behind her six-month-old daughter, Hannah. The day Nicole left for the Middle East, "she breast-fed her baby one last time," says Ramona. "When Nicole finally had to say good-bye and kissed Hannah's fuzzy little head, she lost it. She was crying so hard, her dad almost had to carry her to the car."
Nicole's three-month deployment has been extended to six months. Back at home, Ramona says, "Nicole's missing Hannah's milestones, and that just tears out my heart. We're proud of the way our daughter's serving our country, but every time we videotape a 'first'Hannah learning to crawl or cutting a toothour joy's tarnished by the thought that Nicole should be here to witness it."
Lonely but Not Alone
The Oldens are one of more than a million families impacted by military deployments. These numbers are projected to remain high as America maintains a military presence in various hot spots including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. In fact, during this holiday season nearly one in four military members could be separated from their loved ones. The length of these separations can vary from a few days to a year or more.
As the wife of a former Air Force fighter pilot and the mother of five children, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to have my husband, Bob, away from the family while he's on assignments. It seemed that whenever Bob was deployed, the washer would break down, the kids got chicken pox, or the hot water heater overflowed and flooded the house! Although military bases provide services and a community, often I felt isolated and lonely.
When Nancy Davis's son, Army Reservist PSC Frank Wesley Davis, who lived at home, was called up before his 23rd birthday, she experienced similar feelings.
"I held Frank in my arms as a baby, held his hand as he grew, and the next thing I knew, my hands were empty as I sent him off to war," explains Nancy. "I didn't know anyone else whose child went to war. I felt so alone."
Especially difficult for military family members are those special events spent without their loved one, such as an anniversary, the birth of a child, the first day of school, Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, and decorating the Christmas tree.
That's where nonmilitary neighbors, coworkers, church members, and friends can reach out to help.
Helping military families cope is the very thing Audra Luchtel, a single woman, had in mind when she organized Adopt a Military Family Day at her church. "I'm a behind-the-scenes person and didn't feel comfortable approaching a family I didn't know," she says. "But since lots of military families attend our church, I wanted to help them tangibly and show God's love in our community."
Audra gained the support of her church leadership, and her pastor kicked it off by preaching a sermon on loving God by loving others. The church also invited a guest speaker to talk about specific ways members could help military families.
"The response was incredible," says Audra. "Dozens of families filled out response cards expressing their willingness to adopt a military family. Then we linked together the families with the volunteers. This adoption included maintaining contact with the family, offering an occasional meal or baby-sitting, and writing letters to the deployed spouse. Throughout the process, some incredible friendships formed, and many of these families said this outreach made it easier for them to cope with being separated from their loved one."
But what if you don't have time to invest in the life of a military family? That's what Laura Harris, a working mother of two, thought. "I'm the vice president of operations for a group of physical therapy centers, and I felt as though my plate was pretty full," she says. But when Laura heard about the plight of those who live the military lifestyle, she felt convicted to put her faith into practice. The Harris family partnered with Valerie Sands, whose Air Force husband, a security policeman, had been deployed to Oman for six months. When Valerie's extended family experienced a death and she had to travel out of state to attend the funeral, the Harrises offered to watch Valerie's 15-year-old daughter, Tonya, for her. "Valerie wanted Tonya to stay in school while she was gone for two weeks," Laura explains. "I empathized with this family, because my own dad was gone for a year during Vietnam."
If you ask a family to call you if there's anything you can do, chances are good they'll never call. Instead, offer a specific date or service such as, "We'd like to bring you a meal; is Tuesday or Thursday better?" or, "We want to baby-sit the kids so you can go shopping. How about Saturday morning?" Write a note in your palm pilot or daily planner to remind you to send a card, drop off a plant, or invite the family to dinner.
Laura stays in regular contact with Valerie and Tonya through lunches and dinners together, daily e-mails, and frequent telephone calls. "By staying in touch," says Laura, "I know what their needs areand can better meet them as they arise."
The More, the Merrier
During the holidays, it becomes more challenging to find the time to reach out to the military families separated from their deployed loved ones. That's where organizations can pitch in to help.
Sonia Pfaffenberger, a coordinator for MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) from New Mexico, has made a point of marketing her MOPS group to military moms. "We provide programs that interest them, educate ourselves on what the military life is like, and offer resources that help them where they live," she says.
As a result, Sonia's group has doubled in size, with more than 50 percent of its members coming from the local military base. "Personally, I try to do something once a week for our military moms. I send an encouraging e-mail, plan a fun get-together, or update our lending library with books that help these moms," explains Sonia.
Why not try reaching out to a military family this holiday season? When you do, you'll provide their deployed family member with the comfort of knowing his or her loved ones are receiving care and support. You'll also become the hands of Christ to those in need around you.
Ellie Kay, best-selling author of several books, including Heroes at Home: Hope & Help for America's Military Families (Bethany House), is a regular guest on CNBC's Power Lunch and a national radio commentator for Money Matters.
6 Great Morale Boosters
While military agencies assist families during separations, there's no substitute for a good neighbor. Try these practical suggestions this season:
- Give Gift Certificates. A suddenly single military mom doesn't always have the energy to cook or the money to go out. A restaurant, movie-theater, or fast-food gift certificate provides a great break for families on a tight budget.
- Donate a Phone Card. Phone bills add up while a loved one's gone. Even if the family can't call the deployed service member, they'd love to talk to other family members and friends around the world. Go to www.operationuplink.org to donate a card.
- Provide Rapid Deployment Kits (RDKs). Military Ministries (Campus Crusade for Christ) offers an RDK for any deploying military member. Each $2.50 you donate buys one kit, which includes a copy of the New Testament and a "How to Know God Personally" tract. Visit www.milmin.org.
- Request a Heroes at Home Kit. for military families, Military Ministries donates a kit that includes the book Heroes at Home and a copy of the Jesus film for children. Go to www.heroesathome.org to request a free kit if you're a military family or to donate one.
- Purchase Watches.s Give an inexpensive, identical watch to a deployed parent and his/her kids. They can set the alarm to go off at the same time and feel a daily connection.
- Create a Prayer Calendar. Ask your Sunday school class or church to adopt a deployed service member and organize a prayer calendar to pray for him each day he's gone.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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