By Danielle DeSimone
For military families with a service member on deployment, the holidays can be a difficult time. The distance between family members can take its toll on everyone, but especially on the military spouses who are left to navigate celebrating the holidays alone, oftentimes far away from their own immediate family.
Andrea Weathers recalled the several Thanksgivings she has spent apart from her Navy husband and other family members, and how there was always one thing that carried her through and made those dinners a time of celebration: the support from her military community.
Celebrating Thanksgiving with a Deployed Spouse and Far from Home
Over Capt. Richard Weathers’ 30-year career in the Navy, the Weathers family spent several Thanksgivings apart – perhaps most significantly, on their oldest daughter’s first celebration of the holiday. Richard was deployed to the Gulf War almost immediately after the birth of his oldest daughter and although his deployment was only supposed to last six months, it got extended. So, Andrea navigated those first months of their daughter’s life – and their daughter’s first Thanksgiving – alone. They wouldn’t be reunited until she was 16 months old.
In the days before FaceTime and Skype, communication between a deployed spouse and their loved ones back home was usually limited to letter-writing and the very rare phone call. Andrea and her daughters would prepare and send Thanksgiving care packages – sometimes through the USO – to Richard, “And then the kids could feel like he was celebrating with us,” Andrea explained.
If they were lucky, Richard would occasionally be able to call home from his plane, but he was limited in what he could say about his whereabouts, and they all had to use aviation terms so that each sentence ended with: “I’m doing well, thanks, I love you! Over.”
“But at least I could hear his voice,” said Andrea. For the majority of the deployment, however, they barely spoke. She would go two or three months without ever getting to speak to her husband.
However, the Weathers family faced more than just the challenge of their father’s deployment – both parents and children also had to tackle spending years apart from each other. As the Weathers’ youngest daughter prepared to start her first year of college and her older sister entered her junior year, their father suddenly got orders to Okinawa, Japan.
Andrea was forced to settle her daughter into her freshman college dorm and then board a plane to Japan quite literally the next day.
“I bawled my eyes out the whole way there,” Andrea said.
Starting college can be a tumultuous time for freshmen, who are far from home and must adjust to a new lifestyle. For many, Thanksgiving is their first break from school and their first opportunity to return home to be reunited with their families. But for the Weathers, that wasn’t possible. Their daughters spent the next three Thanksgivings apart from their parents while they were stationed in Japan.
“We always talk about the little ones during deployment or foreign duty stations, which is very hard, obviously, but then when they’re older, it’s a whole different set of worries,” Andrea said. “You’re leaving your kid for the first time during one of the most difficult times of her life, but we didn’t have any other option for her.”
Many of their Thanksgivings were not only spent apart from each other, but also from their own families. Stationed in places like Italy and Japan, Andrea and her children would spend Thanksgiving far from both their deployed service member and their family back home in the United States while living in countries that don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
“So, because of that,” Andrea said. “A lot of the time, your family at Thanksgiving was your military family.”
Thankful for the Military Community
With their service members deployed, Andrea explained that the military spouses of her tight-knit squadron would “rally around each other” and eat Thanksgiving dinner together, potluck-style. Each spouse would bring a different part of the meal and they and their children would all gather in one house, making sure that despite being far from their loved ones, it was still a holiday to celebrate.
“For me, more than anything, it was important to make sure that I continued with Thanksgiving traditions and that we didn’t do anything different when he was gone,” said Andrea.
“I wanted the kids to know that this is what we do, with dad or without dad, and we would continue to have that tradition regardless. That was important to me – that even though we were going to other people’s homes for Thanksgiving, I wanted the kids to have a set tradition.”
But sharing Thanksgiving dinner with other military families was more than just a way to get by during hard times – it was also a way to support Andrea’s daughters who, like all military children, faced a unique set of challenges that civilian families rarely experience.
“I wanted to make sure they knew that we weren’t the only ones going through a deployment, that we were not isolated,” said Andrea. “That way, they could relate to other military kids, all of them going through the same thing, and that made it easier for my daughters to deal with their dad’s deployment.”
When they were stationed in Okinawa, far apart from their daughters, Andrea and Richard found themselves once again being invited into the homes of other military families in Japan, who readily welcomed them to their Thanksgiving meals.
And even when the Weathers family was able to spend Thanksgiving together, the reminder of being apart was always there. They would host young service members without families or anywhere to go at their home for Thanksgiving, or they would help serve Thanksgiving dinner to service members living on base.
“We always try to give back to the military in that way, because we know what it’s like to be by yourself,” Andrea said.
Andrea credits her friends in the military community with ensuring that, despite the many deployments over not just Thanksgiving, but also other holidays, birthdays and major life events, she still felt at home and supported during the holidays. They all grew so close that even today, her daughters still think of those other military spouses as “aunts and uncles.”
“I am so thankful for them. I would have never made it without the support of those military families,” said Andrea. Today, even with years and miles between them, those same military friends are the ones that Andrea knows she can rely on. “Those friendships will be with us forever,” she said.
Editor’s Note: The author of this story is a personal friend of the Weathers family.
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