Lest we forget, during the holidays…
By Guest Contributor Renee Nickell
The holidays are approaching, so you know what that means…the black plague of shopping is upon us. No, I don’t really think this way. I love shopping during the holidays, albeit mostly online. Enter Thanksgiving-the day we feast with family, watch football, and discuss all those blessings we are so thankful for. Then, just when everyone is getting settled down for the night after gorging on pumpkin pie and spiced eggnog, the avid Black Friday shoppers are reading their flyers, marking their maps and strategizing as if they are preparing for combat, ready to trample anyone in their path that would prevent them from purchasing their child the latest, most popular, deeply discounted item…the must-have item that will be played with for about 10 minutes and placed on a shelf until next year.
Yes, it’s the holidays. It brings out the best or worst in all of us. I for one, have been the best and the worst to those around me at times I’m sure. Let me explain, Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been so special to our family, being that we don’t always get to see a lot of our family during the year. We are “the military family.” We see family when we can and in the past, that has always depended on where we were in the country and whether we could afford to travel long distances (raise your hand if you’re a military family on a tiny budget, yet are expected to travel to see everyone else during the holidays).
I’d say being around those I love always brings out the best side of me. The side that loves to laugh and cook, play practical jokes, and watch Christmas movies. In recent years past, it’s been difficult celebrating Christmas when my brother Sam made his last phone call to us on Thanksgiving 2011, and then was killed in action just three weeks later on December 14th in Afghanistan. I am thankful for my husband and children who are so patient with me during those “bad days.” While most families were preparing their Christmas plans and wrapping gifts, we were planning a funeral. The reality is, if we hadn’t been planning a funeral, Sam would have still been in war, separated from his family like so many other deployed members are each and every year.
Many military families daydream of running through an airport with their balloons and signs, imagining their little toddlers stumbling over their own feet because they haven’t seen mommy or daddy in nine months. It becomes hard to fathom the scenario of holiday shopping madness of people pushing and shoving each other that has now begun on Thanksgiving Day in recent years, instead of waiting until Black Friday. How has our beloved Thanksgiving now become Black Thursday? Who agreed to this?
You get a whole new perspective when you’re sitting around a Christmas tree wondering what you’re to do, since there was no time for Christmas shopping because your brother of 36 years of age was recently killed. We had three young children at the time, and he had two young sons. That was the Christmas when Black Friday or any other shopping day didn’t really seem to matter anymore. We just wondered how we would survive each year without him.
Being a military spouse and a military family, we have an understanding that so many people do not. 0.4 percent of Americans are currently serving on active duty. The scope of understanding what military life is like is getting smaller and smaller for Americans as fewer people are serving. For the majority of my life I have lived or have been part of a military community. It is hard to fathom that so many American’s do not understand or cannot comprehend the magnitude of sacrifice our military men and woman face each day. “Since 2001, 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments across the world with soldiers from the Army accounting for the bulk of them. Deployed personnel were under 30 years old on average, over half were married and about half had children” (McCarthy, 2018).
Understand this-In the past 17 years, there have been 5.4 MILLION deployments. This means that statically, every service member since 2001 have deployed twice. Now, we all know that there are some that never deployed and there are those that have deployed nine times. Let us not forget about Retired Navy Seal, Dan Crenshaw, who got blown up in Afghanistan in 2012, lost an eye, and signed up to be deployed two more times. Let that sink in during your hair pulling and Samsung TV trampling shopping event after telling cousin June how much you hate grandma’s lumpy gravy.
But I digress. You see, Christmas will never be the same for our family. As if it weren’t bad enough that military families have to miss anniversaries, birthdays, and births, some of us will forever have the empty chair at the table. Christmas of 2011 was our families first experience with the proverbial empty chair. Not only was there going to be an empty chair, but also an empty Christmas Tree on Christmas morning.
Cue the sad, melodic, music which begins to increase as the doorbell rings on Christmas morning. Just when you think life couldn’t get any sadder…it’s as if I could hear the sound of angels singing and thunder erupt from the heavens shouting “SEND IN THE MARINES!” And that was the day the Marines were sent in to save the day for our family. That Christmas, the one with all the small children, and not a present in sight, was the Christmas that restored my hope in well…everything good. You see, two young, sharply dressed Marines showed up with Christmas present after Christmas present for our families just five days after my brother’s memorial service. I don’t recall any child that morning wishing for something else or complaining they didn’t receive a new puppy or a $500 iPad. What I heard was grateful children, happy to have experienced a little joy that morning, long enough to get a short break from the tears.
For years, our families have been donors to Marine Toys for Tots. Did you ever wonder who was the recipient of those toys? I did. I wondered about the “less fortunate” children that would have Christmas from the Marines because people were generous enough to donate in stores and businesses across the United States. Christmas morning of 2011, I realized where those toys go. I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined our family would be the recipient of such an amazing organization. But that day, well, it brought us hope.
The following year, I made this observation: Christmas morning came, children awoke out of their beds, and not a single one asked about opening presents. There were presents under the tree, but it wasn’t the focus of the day. These children knew and understood, at such a young age, the level of sacrifice no family should have to endure. There were giggles and smiles, hugs and pancakes…and then we got to the presents.
It’s 2018, and there is still a war. There are many wars still happening that we never hear about in mainstream media. There are men and women still sacrificing their lives for our opportunity to shop until we drop. They do it willingly. They don’t begrudge our opportunities to bless our kids. They do it with willing hearts because they love America. I know they would much rather be with their families during the holidays, as they do not get to choose when they will go or when they will return home.
There are military families all over this country who will be separated from their hero, either by ocean or by death, that are not focused on the “buy now” or the “add to cart” button. They just desire their family together. Don’t get me wrong. Shopping is not evil. Black Friday or Thursday or any other day to spend time shopping for your family is not evil. Get all your girlfriends together and have a great time doing it, while the men are at home watching football (or sleeping). I love shopping and I love shopping especially for my children and family. We now try to do extra special things at Christmas to make new memories, which usually entails a special trip, and less presents.
I always believe the best way to combat the materialism at Christmas is to give-and give generously. While you’re out shopping or enjoying your feasts with your families, let me suggest that you take the time to remember those that are deployed. Pick up an extra gift and donate it to Toys for Tots. There are donation boxes everywhere. You can also go online and donate money. Say a prayer for our deployed and their families. You never know when they’ll receive the dreaded knock on the door. You know that military family down the street in their twenties with two young children? Perhaps give them a card with some cash in it to help pay for their travels home to see grandma and grandpa. The ones they haven’t seen since before the last two deployments.
In addition to Toys for Tots, an organization that provides a beautifully wrapped gift for Gold Star children is Believe With Me. It’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization who helps support Gold Star families throughout the year. At Christmastime, this group of selfless volunteers prepares months in advance to purchase, wrap, and ship gifts to hundreds of Gold Star children. They call it an American Gold Star Christmas and it’s spectacular! It is a wonderful gift to be remembered at such a difficult time of year and I know these families are grateful that their heroes sacrifice have not been forgotten, nor have their children. Believe With Me allows donors to purchase the gifts themselves or provide cash or gift cards and the organization will shop for the sponsored children.
Believe With Me currently has 300 Gold Star children signed up for gifts. They are expecting over 1000 children this year. The non-profit continues to grow each year in its provision for fatherless or motherless children. Sadly, this means that there are thousands of children who are missing a parent, not only at Christmas, but forever. Believe With Me depends solely on the donations of others and they depend on the volunteers who help package and ship these beautiful gifts. I spoke with the Founder of Believe With Me, Lyette Reback, about the upcoming American Gold Star Christmas. She explains,
An American Gold Star Christmas is your opportunity to give back to the families of our fallen soldiers. Your donation will allow high school and university students the opportunity to shop for Gold Star kids’ wish lists and the students will be impacted by the up close and personal cost of their freedoms. This year, Believe With Me will have more than 1000 children to serve and the cost of the project will total more than $150,000. FedEx has graciously stepped in to underwrite the shipping costs, but our needs for gifts are still at an all-time high.”
Being a Gold Star family member myself and understanding firsthand the cost of freedom, our family is incredibly grateful for families like the Rebacks’ and organizations who honor our fallen and the families left behind, year after year. You can never replace what is lost, but love sure does go a long way. Christmas is the time of year when people all over the world express their love in the form of gifts and giving. I hope you will show your gratitude this Christmas and support Toys for Tots and Believe With Me.
If you are a Gold Star family, you can go to www.BelieveWithMe.com/sponsor to register your child. Organizations like these need your help to make a difference in the lives of these children who have already sacrificed so much.
Renee Nickell is the Author of “Always My Hero: The Road to Hope & Healing Following My Brother’s Death in Afghanistan” For more about Renee, go to www.reneenickell.com.