Families with members in the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force don't often have the luxury of being together during the holidays, so they find different ways to celebrate Christmas as a family from halfway across the globe.
Cheryl Geyer has just such a family. Her two sons, Jordan and Chase, both enlisted in the Army, and have both been deployed during Christmas.
"Jordan was deployed two different times during Christmas," Geyer said. "Chase was deployed for one Christmas."
Both sons were halfway across the world and didn't know if they would be able to even call home for Christmas.
"In the Army there is no annual leave outside the states during Christmas," Geyer said. "You get together when you can. They don't have a choice on when they come home, so we would just celebrate when they came back."
Geyer sent each of them different gift packages reminding them of home, and hoping to keep their spirits up even though they weren't home for the holiday.
"I would send family stuff, reminders of Michigan, ornaments they made when they were younger and things to remind them of Christmas when they were a kid," she said. "I sent items for them to share as part of that. If there was someone there who was by themselves they would have something too."
Sending gifts and goofy reminders to her sons made her feel a bit better about them being away at Christmas.
"Was it difficult? Absolutely," she said. "You learn to make the best of a bad situation. I would talk to other mothers with their children in the same unit. It helped to network with other soldiers' moms going through the same thing."
Geyer said she still decorated a tree, wrapped presents and would go to church and her parents' home for Christmas.
"It was a difficult time, but going to church was essential. We all prayed for the soldiers. It's just what you do," Geyer said. "I would have all their gifts wrapped so they were ready when they got back. I felt bad for them to be missing Christmas at home and always gave them something for their mini-Christmas, even if they only had a few minutes to celebrate."
Geyer's family and friends and people at church sent cards and things to Jordan and Chase, and to the others in their unit, hopefully surprising them with something nice.
"It wasn't about me," Geyer said. "It was about making sure they had something to remind them of home, and that someone was thinking about them."
Jordan said being deployed over a holiday is hard to deal with, but to him it wasn't a depressing or sad time.
"The holidays to me were about being with friends and family, regardless of what day it is on," he said. "One year I came home in May and celebrated Christmas with my mom and brother and it was like any other Christmas ... my mom put up Christmas decorations and wrapped presents just like when I was eight years old on Christmas morning. The holidays are more of a state of mind and family than the day itself."
Another family who has had a few difficult Christmas' is the James Jr. and Robyn Hart family. Two of their son's, Lance and James III, were in Afghanistan and their daughter, Eryn Harvey, who is married to a Naval officer, was away for the holidays. Lance has served in the Army National Guard for 10 years, James III has served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper for four years, and son-in-law Paul Harvey has been a Navy officer for four years.
"Christmas 2011 both of our sons were in Afghanistan," Robyn said. "We talked with Lance on Skype that Christmas, and were able to talk to Jimmy on the phone. It's a half a world away. Eryn and Paul were in Yokosuka, Japan, one year and we Skyped with them and our grandchildren Pauly and Eva."
Robyn said the family tries to make whatever they can do for Christmas special.
"Skyping is a God send," she said. "If it weren't for the Skyping, I don't know what I'd do. It was hard enough not having them here, but at least we could see them and make sure they were alright."
Some of the Hart's favorite traditional things to send to their children included venison jerky, their favorite sugar cookies and snacks and playing cards.
"I always tried to send enough cookies for the whole unit," Robyn said. "I put things in there they could all use."
The last time the family was together for Christmas was over three years ago, and they try to always carry out the traditions they had known growing up.
"We have a big seafood dinner whenever we can, but usually before church on Christmas," Robyn said. "We also do a big Christmas potluck dinner at grandma and grandpa's house, which is a special family tradition."
Robyn said grandparents James Sr. and Virginia Hart always make sure to say how proud they are of the children and support them when they see them at Christmas.
Lance and James were able to celebrate Christmas for a few minutes while in Afghanistan, and were thankful for even the smallest celebration, like a rare surf and turf dinner Christmas night.
"It wasn't like them being at home, but it was nice for them to have that," Robyn said. "Sometimes we could Facebook or email them, but access to that wasn't always possible. It was hard."
When the family was away for Christmas Robyn said she and her husband tried to stay busy, and she didn't sleep well, and they would wait for the next time they would be contacted.
"This year I'm very thankful that all my family is home in the U.S.A.," she said. "This year for the first time in three years, all my family will be home for Christmas. I thank God they can all be here and are safe."
Perhaps Robyn said it best when she said "it's all about finding a way to spend time together over Christmas, in whatever way you can."
Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.