by Cathy McCarthy
All of us here at Operation Homefront hope that you get to enjoy family time together on Thanksgiving this year. But, we also know that many military families will not be with their loved ones. That is just part of military life, and one of the prices paid in service to country. You are not alone. Many military spouses and families have been there, done that, and can completely understand how you are feeling.
With my husband who was away for long periods of time on a submarine, I celebrated many different kinds of Thanksgivings. You might see yourself in one of these “styles.”
- Style 1: Family Is What You Make It: In all our years as a Navy family, we were never closer than 5 or 6 hour’s drive from family, and most of the time, no closer than 1,000 miles. I have hosted families who could not make it home and gathered spouses and children of my husband’s shipmates when the submarine was deployed. On one occasion, we had 12 people hanging out in a 900 square foot military housing unit (shout out to Jackson Park)! Never thought I could have so much fun crammed into a tiny kitchen peeling 20 pounds of potatoes. I was blessed to spend time with so many amazing military families from all over the country, each with unique stories but united in our support for each other (despite their unfortunate choices in NFL teams – Go G-men!).
- Style 2: Hit The Road Solo: I decided one year when my husband was deployed on Thanksgiving to take to the air and go see extended family. My parents and brothers were literally on another continent at the time, so I went to see my grandma, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. A three-day whirlwind tour, pregnant, with toddler in tow. Many military families are familiar with the “short time, long list of places to be” tour. In hindsight, I might have scaled it back a bit. It was great to see family, but a bit exhausting by the end. That is how I found myself at SFO crying to “I’ll be home for Christmas” at 10PM at night. But I also met a young soldier on a layover who was flying home to see his little girl, having been deployed to Korea for the previous six months. I still have the coin he gave my 2-year-old daughter in my jewelry box.
- Style 3: Dinner at the Command Because You or Your Spouse Has Duty: Not many can say they have had Thanksgiving on a submarine (the boat, not the ship…don’t ever call it a ship). Hubby had duty and we were invited to come have dinner with him. After all these years, I have never stopped marveling at how the guys (gals, too, now) could handle life undersea for so long in those tiny spaces. I’ve had walk-in closets bigger than the mess deck on one of those things. I have also had Thanksgiving at the dining hall when I wore the uniform. And while it may not be Momma’s cooking, our shipmates do a pretty darn good job.
- Style 4: Eat Somewhere That Is Open on Thanksgiving: Because they’re in 12-hour shift work and you have a whopping 10 hours to do anything, including sleep.
- Style 5: Pick Your Own Day to Celebrate: I once had homecoming shortly AFTER Thanksgiving, so many of the division families got together and had Thanksgiving in early December, potluck style. Thanksgivings can be the day before, day after, or week later. I bet someone has had it in October…any day but actual Thanksgiving.
Which is why that year on actual Thanksgiving Day I resorted to …
- Style 6: I’m Over It: Turkey sandwich. Early bedtime. Enough said. But seriously, sometimes, it is okay to just give yourself an out and take a pass on festivities. Quiet and rest is often vastly underestimated.
And finally, last but not least…
- Style 7: Overcompensating: And, when my husband was FINALLY home for the holidays, I busted out the Bon Appetit, Southern Cooking, Food and Wine and found the most complicated cookie, cakes and side dish recipes, created an over-the-top centerpiece, and decorated like our home was getting photographed for Town and Country. For me, him and two toddlers. Because we had not had a Thanksgiving together in a long time and I was going to knock it out of the park and create the best memories ever! I recovered in enough time for Christmas, which believe me, was much more low-key.
But in all seriousness, as tough as it can be for families, in our hearts, we know it is so much tougher for our service member.
The challenges we can face as military families at the holidays is one reason why I love Operation Homefront’s annual Holiday Meals for Military program so much. It is such a nice way to meet the military families in our communities and let them know we appreciate all they go through and that we are thinking of them. Most of the time, I bring my kids along to volunteer, and we always have an amazing time. We’ll be distributing over 7,000 meals in November and December this year in cities across the USA. That’s a lot of holiday cheer, and this year, we will be serving a holiday meal to our 400,000th family member since the program was born from a chance encounter between a Beam Suntory executive (one of our sponsors) and a young military family in a supermarket in Utica, New York, near Fort Drum.
If you would like to provide some holiday cheer for a military family this year, please consider donating to our Current Need fund for holiday meals. You can also join us in our Raise Your Hand or Giving Strength campaigns or volunteer at one of our upcoming Holiday Meals for Military events.
For military families interested in receiving a holiday meal, you can find our list of events and links to register here.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Operation Homefront!