Far From Home for the Holidays

A1C Moriah Coleman and SSgt. Meghann Trapp decorate Christmas cookies during a holiday event at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Air Force Magazine photo by Jennifer Hlad.

Jennifer Hlad

Southwest Asia—SrA. Jake Dawson, a flight engineer from Illinois, is spending this Christmas half a world away from his wife and 4-year-old son. But he’s not alone, he said: He’s spending the holidays with his “second family”—the rest of the 737 Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.

Capt. Brian Nanko, a C-130 co-pilot with the 737 EAS who also is deployed from the 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria, Ill., said all of the air crews from Peoria and the 120th Airlift Wing in Great Falls, Mont., live in the same building, and they’ve decorated with Christmas lights and an “8-foot tall snowman.”

“We’re making the best of it,” Nanko said.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Ballou, the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing’s chaplain, said while being away from family can be difficult, it can also help people gain a greater appreciation for their families and the traditions they’ve established.

“It makes them realize, hey, I was away from it this year, but all the more reason next year to do it, or it becomes more meaningful to them,” he said.

Some people say “that they really took it all for granted, but now that it’s not there, they really are going to put their whole heart and soul into it for years to come,” Ballou said. “Because they know what was lacking, what was missing, and they really appreciate it.”

This year will be the first time in his 51 years that Ballou will be spending Christmas away from his family, but he is trying to bring Christmas to as many people as possible—performing seven different masses in four locations. And, he noted, there are holiday decorations all over base, as well as several activities for airmen to participate in.

“We’re providing for their spiritual needs, but also for their physical needs, and also for their emotional needs,” Ballou said.

To help ease potential stress, the mental health clinic on base handed out cards and candy with tips on coping during the holiday season. Among the tips: keep expectations manageable, do something for someone else, and enjoy free base activities.

There are plenty of free activities to choose from. Starting on Dec. 13 with a tree lighting, there has been at least one event every day for the “12 Days of Christmas.”

Dec. 20, airmen gathered in a side room at the DFAC to decorate holiday cookies.

MSgt. Jessica Nieves, of the 386th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, helped bake more than 300 cookies for the event, and said it gave her “a little bit of home” that she was missing.

Nieves, who is deployed from Westover, Mass., said it is especially hard to be away from her daughters during the holidays. But baking and decorating the cookies helped, she said.

“This is what I do at home with my girls,” Nieves said, adding that she is “not the only one out there who’s missing family.”

A1C Moriah Coleman and SSgt. Meghann Trapp, firefighters with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, worked together to decorate their cookies. Being far from home at this time of year is challenging, they said, but it is not as hard as it could be because they are with their “military family.”