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Empty Chair at the Holiday Table

By Elaine Ambrose

This year, thousands of American families will have an empty chair at the holiday table. And some presents will remain wrapped until next summer. Months ago, family members waved bravely as their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives boarded airplanes to begin their deployment overseas with the US military. Many family members promised their soldiers that they wouldn’t cry. Many lied.

My son Adam served his country during the holidays of 2003 and 2004 as a military policeman in South Korea. He returned home in 2005, receiving an honorable discharge from the Army, and started a career in law enforcement with the county sheriff’s department. His military experience was positive because the army training enabled him to continue a job he learned during active duty and it also provided him with opportunities to continue his education. While I am proud of his commitment to his country, I’m also grateful he’s back home and keeping our local streets safe and sound this holiday season.

Through his active duty, I learned how to cope with my own anxiety while offering him positive reinforcement and support. Here are a few suggestions to help get me through the long months:

  • Utilize the family services provided by the military, like the many web sites full of useful information about the troops. One example is Military Family Network at emilitary.org. Remember you are not alone, and thousands of families have loved ones stationed overseas.

  • Several military-related suppliers offer gifts and mailing opportunities. When Adam was stationed in South Korea, I used one such outlet to send him an Army Santa for Christmas.

  • Regular contact is essential for our morale at home and theirs overseas. Most of the troops have access to email, but a letter from home is always welcomed. It’s not easy to get through on the telephone, so try to arrange, in advance, the best time for your soldier to call.

  • Remember special occasions, such as birthdays and special anniversaries. It’s important to mail months in advance if you want to ensure the package arrives by a certain time.

  • Troops always appreciate a package of homemade cookies. Pack them in protective padding and throw in several pairs of new socks for extra cushion.

  • Don’t send electronic devices or videos unless you’re sure they have space and access to the necessary equipment. Remember some packages never arrive, so don’t send expensive items. Also, soldiers are limited in what they can bring back so don’t send large valuables.

  • Keep the troops in touch with their hometown. Send local newspapers and magazines, and encourage their friends to correspond.

  • Learn how to take and send digital photos. You can utilize photo-sharing websites such as shutterfly.com and snapfish.com to keep relatives in the loop and your soldier will appreciate the instant communication.

  • Remember the rest of the family. While it’s natural to be concerned with your soldier, be sure to pay attention to siblings and other family members.

  • Don’t criticize the war effort to your soldier overseas. While many Americans are quick to judge the war efforts, don’t let that criticism get to your soldier.

  • Final caution:  I once made the mistake of crying when my son called from South Korea; he had been stationed in a dangerous area. He didn’t call again for a long time, and eventually told me I hadn’t helped his situation acting distraught and emotional. Be concerned but not hysterical, and try to end all conversation on a positive, loving tone. Once you hang up, you can beg and barter for more guardian angels.

During this busy holiday season, keep in mind the sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, spouses and others who are part of a military organization attempting to bring peace to the world. Having a loved one in the military during the holidays encourages us to focus our priorities on more important issues and not get caught up in the holiday hype.

Again this year, our household will cut back on unnecessary frivolity to concentrate on the true meaning of peace and love of family and country. This year we’ll continue the tradition of lighting candles and offering prayers for the safe return for the thousands of sons and daughters who serve the cause of freedom.

There are yellow ribbons hanging on the trees in front of many houses throughout our country. Let the ribbons become a reminder to offer hope and encouragement to the families who wait for their loved ones to come home. Their holiday feast will be postponed, but then they will celebrate with much joy and gratitude when their soldiers return to tear down the ribbons. The families will have an abundant feast to celebrate freedom, and there won’t be an empty chair at the holiday table.

Read other articles and learn more about Elaine Ambrose.

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