Here, There, Nowhere – Holiday Travel and the Military Family

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One of my best holiday meals was during the worst year of my life. Stay with me, it will all make sense.

My husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and it was a bad deployment. His unit had already lost several soldiers and many more had been wounded. I was pregnant and knew he would not be home for the birth. In July of that year my father died after a hard battle with cancer. Then, in September, just as a hurricane was blowing through my North Carolina town, my water broke and I went into labor with my daughter, arriving at the hospital a scant 15 minutes before she was born. And, of course, all of those other Murphy’s Law-type things that happen during a deployment had happened as well.

By the end of November, I was physically and emotionally spent. My husband was still deployed and I did not have the energy to pack up my son, newborn daughter and dog and drive 650 miles to visit my relatives or 250 miles to have Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family. I had decided Thanksgiving would be just another day, and considered cooking a frozen pizza for me and my son and watching a movie. I mentioned this to one of my best friends, an Army wife who was going through a divorce. She confided that she didn’t have the emotional energy to face her family’s questions about her failed marriage. We decided to cook and eat a small version of Thanksgiving dinner together but, by Thanksgiving day, our small dinner had expanded exponentially. It turned out that we each had several friends who couldn’t or didn’t want to travel to visit their relatives, either, and we invited them to join us.

People began arriving at my house around 11 a.m. and we all cooked, laughed and, eventually, ate together. It was casual and easy, and such a great experience that I’ve looked for ways to avoid obligatory meals ever since. Getting together with loved ones should be fun, I’ve realized, but for military families who are often separated from their families by either great distance or unsupportive attitudes – or both – holiday travel can be expensive, exhausting and unfulfilling.

Navy husband Chris Cowan found this to be true for his family, as well. His wife Christy, a Naval officer, had been stationed in London, Spain and California and was out of the habit of traveling home to Georgia for the holidays. And Chris, who hails from Scotland, felt absolutely no pressure to see his family on Thanksgiving, an American holiday. One year while the Cowans were living in Virginia, Christy reconnected with two old friends from the Naval Academy. One lived in North Carolina and the other was in Atlanta. They were each married and had children and the three couples decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together by meeting in the middle at the home of the family in North Carolina.

“We all felt a little selfish for not doing the travel to family thing, but it was just so great to have Thanksgiving with just two other couples and all of our kids,” Cowan said. “That tradition continued for six years straight. The kids would get out of school on Wednesday and we would drive to North Carolina. We had Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and then on Friday night we would get baby sitters and all go out to a fantastic restaurant. On Saturday we would all leave.”

This year the Cowans are stationed again in London and so they’ll have to miss the Thanksgiving gathering for the first time in six years, but he said they hope to pick back up with it when they return to the States in a few years.

Cowan said part of the fun of the gathering is the planning that begins taking place through email weeks in advance. The anticipation builds as they decide what everyone will bring what and when they will all arrive.

“It has made Thanksgiving my favorite holiday, because it’s so much fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to go to see family for the holidays, and that can be really hard on military families.”

Not to mention expensive. Air travel tends to be at peak fare prices for Thanksgiving and Christmas travel and gas prices often spike around heavy travel times, as well. Traffic clogs the roadways and can add considerably to travel time. All too often military families come to realize that their vacation budgets and precious leave time are spent year after year on jaunts that are not rejuvenating and sometimes not even enjoyable.

In addition, married couples, military or not, often learn that if they choose to spend a holiday with one spouse’s family, then members of the other spouse’s family can be miffed and feel rejected. By not spending the holidays with either family, couples can often avoid some of the hurt feelings.

Brittany Maddox, whose husband Chad left active duty a few years ago, said, “When Chad was in the Navy, we never went home for the holidays. We couldn’t afford to please both sides, so we celebrated with the friends we made and saved our trips to Arizona and Tennessee for non-holidays, when it’s cheaper to travel.”

It’s especially difficult, however, when a family has a long-standing tradition of celebrating the holidays together. My family, for example, is huge and gets together for every holiday. During my first years as a military spouse I couldn’t fathom not attending the gatherings and so I wore myself out and spent my family into debt trying to make it to every event.

Likewise, many service members and their spouses are living away from their extended families for the first time and missing big family gatherings can add to the sense of loneliness and separation, particularly if the service member is deployed. But flexibility is crucial for making a military lifestyle work and is an especially useful quality for holiday planning.

Army wife Rhonda Leahy said, “When I was first married, my mom, who is not a milspouse, told me never to feel the pressure of family holiday obligations – that December 25th was a day on the calendar and could be celebrated anytime. I’m so thankful for her graciousness and this advice definitely worked well during deployments over the holidays!”

This year my immediate family won’t be traveling for Thanksgiving. We recently PCS’d and I’ve still got too many clothes in boxes to even considering packing suitcases. Actually, this year my mother is coming to visit us. She’s going to help me cook and we’ve put the word out to friends in the area that they are welcomed to eat with us. And Christmas? Well, we’re spending that one at home, too. My kids have insisted that we be somewhere where Santa can find them. But we might visit my husband’s family after December 25th. I suspect that the holiday and the time with family will be just as nice, and maybe even nicer, on the 27th or the 28th.

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