Above: The Dyrholm family Skypes with exchange students in Spain on New Year’s Eve. Photo courtesy Jackie Dyrholm.
The holiday season is a joyous time, but it can also be a challenging time for families with loved ones far away.
By Stella Veraduccia
Staff Sergeant Oscar Martinez of the Marine Corps Career Center in Warrenton, recalls the challenges that he and wife Mariana faced when he was deployed to Afghanistan seven years ago during their first year of marriage. Their separation began before the holidays, as he was away for work-ups to prepare for his mission as commander of a combat platoon of sixty-five Marines. It was his first deployment and her first year as a military spouse, uncharted territory for both of them. They kept in touch as often as they could through phone and video calls, emails, and even old-fashioned snail-mail letters, which arrived sporadically throughout his deployment.
Other types of “family connections” also helped to see them through it, too.
The Marine Corps Family Readiness Officer connected Mariana with other families who had members on deployment, and there she found a sisterhood of support. Especially helpful was the practice of pairing younger or newer spouses with older or more experienced ones to serve as mentors. They formed Facebook groups and joined together to pack and ship care packages to their Marines. Mariana also tapped into her own family; she joined the PTA and spent time as a classroom volunteer for her young niece and nephew. Her favorite activity was to engage the kids in drawing pictures, writing letters and making cookies to send to her husband’s platoon. SSgt. Martinez says, “It was like Christmas every day” whenever these packages arrived, even if they couldn’t read the scribbled “letters” from their four-year-old pen-pals.
For his part, SSgt. Martinez says his fellow Marines became his secondary family. They banded together to make sure that everyone was doing well, “reminding each other of our mission, our country and our own families.” He also credits the chaplain attached to the unit as a great support; skilled in leading nondenominational conversations, often about books, the chaplain served as a source of mentorship and companionship. One series of talks focused on the book by Gary Chapman called The 5 Love Languages; this inspired SSgt. Martinez to start a long-distance private book club just for his wife and himself, and they read and connected over the Harry Potter books together while he was away. He sums it all up by saying, “Everyone is quick to thank Marines for their service, but in many ways the military spouse is the more resilient one. The spouse is the hardest job in the Marine Corps.”
Military spouses often play another important role in keeping families connected, serving as formal liaisons between command leadership and the families within that command. In the Navy, for example, the “Ombudsman” is a volunteer position for a spouse who has been screened, trained, and appointed by the commanding officer to serve as a family resource for official information and access to support services. Navy Ombudsman Lisa Pecci, wife of Lieutenant Commander Nick Pecci currently stationed in Norfolk, recalls often making the first calls to tell sailors at sea that their babies were born. She also describes how military spouses and families come together to pack and ship holiday packages to their loved ones and prepare full Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to celebrate all together. “It has become our tradition,” she says. “This may not be the family we were given, but it’s the family we created, and the connections last long after the deployments end.”
Modern technology makes it easier to stay connected, but that wasn’t always the case. K.C. Bacher, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Haymarket, recalls being stationed in remote parts of Guam, where earthquakes were frequent, mail delivery was slow, and telephone service was spotty. But they did have MARS, the Military Auxiliary Radio Service, a network of amateur ham radio operators who help service members keep in touch with family back home. “You’d put in a request for a call,” says K.C., “and they would schedule it within a week or so. Then one ham operator would connect with another, who would connect with another, till they got to the one with your family member lined up at the other end.” Every transmission had to end with the word “Over” according to ham protocol, and K.C. laughs when he remembers saying “I love you. Over” to his wife Susie back in Hawaii.
There are several other key ways that military families stay connected when separated by deployment or other assignments:
· While the program names may differ slightly, all the service branches have something like a Family Readiness Group or FRG, to keep families informed and supported during their members’ time with a unit, especially during deployment. FRGs organize welcome programs for newly arriving families, social activities, back-to-school supports, and holiday celebrations.
· United Through Reading, which serves all branches of the U.S. armed forces, allows service members to video-record themselves reading children’s books aloud and share the recordings with their families. Not only does this help relieve some of the stress of separation and keep families connected but, like all good bedtime stories, it also helps inspire a love of reading.
· More than 200 USO Centers around the world provide service members with comfortable places to relax and connect while off-duty or traveling, with free Internet connections and phone services. For service members in combat zones, Operation Phone Home is the USO’s private telephone network, allowing free phone calls and access to computers with free high-speed Internet.
The challenges of staying connected across the miles are not confined to military families; consider the Dyrholm family of Warrenton … and Aalborg, Denmark.
Jackie and Peter Dyrholm met in Aalborg when she was working there for a year; when her work visa expired, they both returned to Warrenton and were married here in 2004. At that time, Peter’s young daughter Emilie Oleson remained in Aalborg with her mother, but the Dyrholms were committed to maintaining a strong relationship with Emilie; they’ve traveled to Denmark frequently and also brought her here to visit, especially after their daughter Emma was born. As the two girls grew older, the whole family grew closer, helped by ever-evolving technology; they now connect daily through FaceTime, Instagram and other platforms. Fifteen-year-old Emma, a sophomore at Fauquier High School, loves getting “big sister advice” from Emilie, who enjoys joining in on family events from 4,000 miles away. Last year, for example, she helped Emma do her Homecoming make-up via video-chat.
The Dyrholms also use technology to stay connected with the foreign-exchange students they have hosted in their home over the years. One holiday tradition they enjoy is to Skype with their Spanish students on New Year’s Eve to join in their custom of eating twelve grapes at midnight. Through Facebook, the Dyrholms also keep in touch with Peter’s parents in Denmark, Lea and Per Strandridder, to share messages, pictures and videos of family events.
But they don’t rely solely on technology to stay connected; they also know the importance of being together. Emma will spend this summer with her grandparents and sister in Denmark, and Peter and Jackie will join them for their vacation. A family tradition is to spend the holidays in Denmark every other year; in the Danish custom, they spend Christmas Eve decorating the tree at the Strandridders’ home then walking around the tree and singing carols before having a traditional Christmas dinner and opening gifts. Being together strengthens the bonds that sustain them when apart.
The holiday season is a joyous time, even more so when staying connected with loved ones across the miles.