During each holiday season, families around the country come together to celebrate. Some families, however, have an empty chair in their circle, for a loved one who is stationed elsewhere while serving in one of the armed forces. War, it seems, doesn’t take a holiday break.
Lebanonresident Donna Ross celebrated Christmas this year without her son Jacob, a senior airman in the United States Air Force.
Jacob just got back from Iraq but was at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., during the holiday season.
“He’ll be stationed there for eight months,” Ross said. “It’ll be sad for me, just knowing that he spent Christmas Day alone; but the officers are usually pretty good about having them over to their home or finding someone to celebrate with. I’m just glad he’s in the states.”
Ross wasn’t as lucky two years ago when her husband Bob was in Afghanistan during the holidays. Bob was a ward officer for the Indiana National Guard at the time but is now a full-time member of the U.S. Army.
“It was really tough,” she said. “His father had died that day. I called up the Red Cross, and he was able to come home for the funeral and showing.”
Ross said, for her, the most difficult part of celebrating Christmas when someone can’t be home is trying to keep all of the traditions anyway.
“You want to make sure that you keep the traditions for the whole family,” she said. “There’s a part of you that just doesn’t even want to put up a tree, but you know you need to.”
Ross said she found it difficult two years ago to know that her husband couldn’t celebrate Christmas in the ways they were accustomed.
“They couldn’t celebrate because they have to respect the country they’re in,” she said. “Some of his sisters sent him a fake Christmas tree that he put on his desk, and he went to church. There was no gift-giving or anything like that, just another day at the office.”
Ross said the most important thing to do to cope with the absence of a loved one is to keep yourself occupied.
“If you don’t stay busy, the silence gets so loud, it just screams at you,” she said. “I try very hard to keep busy. I listen to KLOVE (a Christian rock station), try to stay positive, joined a fitness club and started working out to keep myself busy.
“You can talk about the person gone and hang up their stocking, but when you see that empty seat...it’s just hanging over you the whole time. The silence just screams at you.”
Ross is able to use Skype to video chat with her son, and used it when her husband was in Afghanistan.
“The USO is wonderful,” she said. “Through them, thankfully we are able to communicate. They have phone lines and internet connections to communicate. They give them food. I’m very grateful for the USO.”
Ross said family, friends and neighbors helped her get through Christmas two years ago and will help her again this year.
“Someone started plowing my driveway two years ago when my husband was deployed,” she said. “Whoever it is still does it to this day. The first few times I pulled into the driveway, I cried. Any time there is any snow, it’s gone by the time I get home from work. I have an idea of who it might be, but I don’t actually know.”
Ross said at first it was very hard to accept help from other people.
“People really want to do something, just to help out,” she said. “It takes a lot to learn to let people help out.”
Ross said going through the holidays without her whole family has made her more sympathetic to others in similar situations.
“I feel more for people who have lost a family member,” she said. “It’s an empty chair at the dinner table, and if they are serving in war, it’s even emptier. It’s just screaming at you.”