The Holidays and Military Service
Contributed by Alan Rohlfing
As I write this piece for our blog, I feel a little bit of nostalgia coming on. We’re more than halfway through December, the snow has been falling for more than a day now, and the long-range forecast predicts that temperatures won’t be above freezing for the next few days. But after more than thirty years in uniform, my thoughts tend to drift, much like the snow. Drift, not so much to the days of my youth sledding on the hills of our farm, but to the holidays spent away from the ones I loved the most.
Like most of the old Soldiers I know, I have plenty of memories of time spent away from my family. Sometimes it was due to a field exercise or temporary duty somewhere, but the memories that really stick with you are those deployments that result in a family separation during the holidays.
For many, being apart during those holidays near the end of the year are the toughest. And while I’m a Christian, I’ve served with plenty of men and women of other faiths – and the separations as a result of military deployments are tough no matter what religious holidays you miss. For my family, the most special time of the year is Christmas…and I count my first and last deployments as my most memorable (and dreadful, and frightful) military experiences because of what I would rather have been doing during that time of year. I recently came upon a blog post on MilitaryTimes.com from Army wife Maria Cordova, where she shared survival tips from Military Spouses, tips for when loved ones are deployed during the holidays (https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2018/11/20/is-your-loved-one-deployed-during-the-holidays-military-spouses-share-their-survival-tips/). In that piece, she tells of a friend that was going to celebrate everything her Service Member was going to miss – celebrate those things before he deployed. And that’s exactly what my parents had planned for me, some 29 years ago.
My first family separation came as we were preparing to deploy in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in late 1990. I was a young Field Artillery officer with no wife and kids, but with parents and three sisters and an extended family that meant the world to me. From the time President Bush (the first) announced on TV what we were doing in response to the invasion of Kuwait, it was asses-to-elbows, with not much down time. We were painting vehicles, receiving pieces of equipment that had once been considered luxury items, and loading trains. After our equipment was headed to the port, we had a few days off…so I headed home to see my folks for what I thought would be the last time for a while.
As I said earlier, my parents wanted to celebrate everything I was going to miss, so on one night in early November 1990, we had a Thanksgiving feast in one room of our farmhouse, a Christmas tree loaded with presents in another, a New Year’s Eve party (complete with Father Time) in yet another, and several birthday cakes at the kitchen table. It seemed a bit unusual at the time, but it made for great memories that we still talk about today.
My last deployment was a bit harder to tough out. A decade ago, I deployed with the Missouri National Guard to Kosovo for a nearly-year-long mission that found me serving at spots all around that country. While I wasn’t being shot at or fighting insurgents in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan like many of my colleagues, I did find myself leading men and women over the Christmas holiday at a remote outpost in the northern reaches of Kosovo. A small desktop Christmas tree, a visit from Santa Claus (who arrived on an Army helicopter), and a short Skype call to my wife and young boys as they were opening up their presents at home – that was our holiday season in late 2008. And though it sucked being separated from family, being there with others in uniform – with men and women that I admired and respected – made it bearable, and memorable.
Those deployment experiences of mine, however memorable, stand in stark contrast to one another, but any time spent away from home and family is hard. And I know that the holidays aren’t so special for a lot of folks, but they were for me. Looking back, I feel fortunate that, for those holidays and for those ‘everydays’ during which I was called away from my family to serve, I was able to break bread and chew the fat with my other family, my brothers and sisters in arms.
Yes, I’m a bit older these days, and hopefully a little bit wiser. I retired from the US Army a couple of years ago and there’s a bit more gray in my beard than I would like. I consider myself lucky, I suppose – luckier than some of my comrades that didn’t return, and just plain lucky to have served in a career that I love. My youngest son just turned 18 years old and my oldest will turn 21 in just a few days…that in itself makes me feel my age. But when I think about all those special times with my wife and kids, I also think about those holidays when we were apart so many years ago. Those were tough times, but I’m thankful because we made it through them…and now they’re a part of who we are and where we’ve been. This holiday season, I ask you to remember that we still have thousands of Service Members deployed around the world, separated from their families. Keep them in your thoughts and say a short prayer for them every now and then.
Until next time…
Military Families Month and the ASYMCA
Contributed by Kris Baydalla-Galasso
The name says it all – Family Military Month, observed throughout the month of November, is a time for us to remember, honor and applaud Military families. The observation was set in motion in 1996 by the Armed Services YMCA and has become a tradition, complete with a signed Presidential Proclamation, ever since.
Common sense helps us to understand the sacrifices that our soldiers made when they joined the armed forces or make military a career. These sacrifices don’t end with the completion of a mission or tour. Many men and women hug their families goodbye and set off to live a whole life apart from the people they treasure most. While these men and women protect and defend our country, many of the people they love are left at home to maintain “home business as usual.” Additionally, there are many families who move from state to state and even country to country to support their loved one who is active duty.
The sacrifices of the active duty military servicemen and women go far beyond the Soldier. There are spouses who keep a household running. Parents missing their child. Children missing a parent. There are countless events missed completely or captured in videos and pictures to be watched and enjoyed during a brief stay at home. The impact on the families of military should never be overlooked or ignored.
Children, particularly ages 6 to 12, often feel a good deal of stress regarding their military parent. Moving can be incredibly stressful to adults. Children have this same stress, but in a different way. They also are burdened with the realities of deployment and, unfortunately, trauma should their parent be lost or wounded as a result of that deployment. These kids are just part of the reason why military families need and deserve a month’s worth of recognition.
In an effort to show these military families how appreciated they are, several groups, service centers, public affairs offices and the ASYMCA have all combined efforts to celebrate and honor the military family. In addition, these groups are all looking to increase awareness of both the need for celebration as well as any events throughout the month.
Military families benefit daily from the ASYMCA, the Armed Services YMCA, an organization that has been providing support and services to the military and their families since 1861. The first recorded call to military assistance was performed by over 5,000 YMCA volunteers during the Civil War. These volunteers, who did not have significant military training, stood by the soldiers in the field to provide support as needed. As a result, President Abraham Lincoln commended the organization. The Civil War set a standard for the ASYMCA – they have been present to support our soldiers in military conflict since.
ASYMCA is part of the global YMCA, but the focus is specifically on providing support for military and military families. Volunteers and the ASYMCA organization invest a good amount of time, energy and resources in supporting the men and women on the front lines. The ASYMCA provides these services without requiring membership fees or dues. All of the services provided are offered at no- or low-cost at all 80+ branches and affiliates and over 200 program centers.
The ASYMCA relies on volunteers to make all of these services available. Over 10,000 volunteers dedicate more than 112,000 hours of their time every year to a variety of programs. With only 500 employees, the ASYMCA staff is resourceful at establishing relationships with other nonprofits like Operation Homefront, USO and, of course, the YMCA. These relationships, as well as working with locations who are willing to donate space and other materials, help to keep costs low. Minimizing overhead and staffing costs allow the ASYMCA to save nearly over $2 million in fixed expenditures each year so that the majority of funds raised by the organization can go directly to the troops and their families.
The ASYMCA works diligently to close the gaps in programs and services available to enlisted men and women and their families. There are many services, like family support for wounded soldiers, wounded warrior support and hospital assistance and care, that are more obvious to the non-military family. However, the ASYMCA uses their staff, knowledge and resources to address the lesser-recognized needs of the military. Childcare, for example, is just one of the many gaps that the ASYMCA fills. Food services for those in need, spouse and deployment support, emergency needs and bringing holiday joy are just a few examples of programming available at the local level to those in need. The ASYMCA also has programming in place for recently discharged Soldiers or those on medical leave. Health and wellness services, counseling, computer training classes and more all help a soldier to acclimate to civilian life and live with the many physical and mental wounds that war can bring.
So many children would be lost without the benefit of the ASYMCA. Military kids so often end up with “less” than their traditional family counterparts. For starters, these children don’t have access to a parent for long periods of time. Operation Hero is just one of the programs that is tailored to helping these military kids. This after school program is designed to assist military kids in grades 2-8 and the unique and sometimes significant struggles they face every day. This 10-week course allows each child to work with a trained professional and openly discuss and solve problems faced at school and home. The goal of the professional, facilitator and all of the volunteers is to help a child that is identified as being “in need” by their parents or school by providing counselling, homework assistance and guidance on how to manage conflict. Through Operation Hero, which is at no-cost to the family, children will get the resources to learn how to get back on track – and stay on that track!
Operation Hero is a prime example of the work that the ASYMCA does to change the lives of military children, families and servicemen and women. Clearly, the ASYMCA is working throughout the year to improve the lives of so many Americans. It is during this month of awareness of the military family that we can do our own part to support their efforts. If you are looking for a way to assist someone in the military or a military family, there are many ways to help. If you are interesting in donating to this cause or volunteering your time, please visit https://www.asymca.org/donate or https://www.asymca.org/volunteer.
An excerpt from the ASYMCA’s website (https://www.asymca.org/who-we-are) tells us more about the organization:
Mission. The Armed Services YMCA enhances the lives of military members and their families in spirit, mind and body through programs relevant to the unique challenges of military life.
Guiding Principles. The Armed Services YMCA will:
Mission Focus. Priority shall be given to providing needed programs and services for junior enlisted personnel, both single and married, and their family members. The focus of work shall be in three areas – youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Services may be provided to military personnel other than junior enlisted where resources are available. Programs and services shall be designed to complement and supplement those provided by the Armed Forces, either on or off military installations as appropriate.
Finally, here is the text from this year’s ‘Presidential Proclamation on National Veterans and Military Families Month, 2018’, issued on October 31 and found in full at https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidential-proclamation-national-veterans-military-families-month-2018/…
During National Veterans and Military Families Month, we salute the brave and dedicated patriots who have worn the uniform of the United States, and we celebrate the extraordinary military families whose selfless service and sacrifice make our military the finest in the world.
Our Nation’s veterans represent the best of America. Generation after generation, men and women have answered the call to defend our country and our freedom, facing danger and uncertainty with uncommon courage. They make tremendous sacrifices by leaving their families to serve throughout the homeland and in combat, contingency, and humanitarian operations worldwide.
Our heroes have always relied on their families for strength and support. Serving alongside our men and women in uniform are spouses, siblings, parents, and children who personify the ideals of patriotism, pride, resilience, service above self, and honor. They endure the hardships and uncertainty of multiple relocations, extended trainings, and deployments because of their admirable devotion to our country and a loved one in uniform.
President Ronald Reagan said, “America’s debt to those who would fight for her defense doesn’t end the day the uniform comes off.” Our Nation’s veterans fulfilled their duty to this country with brave and loyal service; it is our moral and solemn obligation to demonstrate to them our continuing gratitude, unwavering support, and meaningful encouragement.
I am steadfastly committed to ensuring our veterans and their families receive the care and support they deserve. I was pleased to sign into law the landmark VA MISSION Act of 2018, which revolutionizes the way veterans receive healthcare and other services vital to their lives. The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to raise its standard of service, including through the establishment of the first national center of excellence for veteran and caregiver research, which will improve services and outcomes for patients and their families. I have also mandated greater collaboration across the Government to support veterans transitioning to civilian life. Additionally, Second Lady Karen Pence and I have collaborated on ways to elevate the career and educational opportunities for military spouses and children in partnership with State, local, and tribal officials.
It is most appropriate that in this season of gratitude we stop to recognize veterans, military families, and those who gave their lives in service to this great Nation. We are indebted to these heroes for the freedoms we enjoy every day. I ask all Americans to join me in offering our sincere thanks to our veterans and the families who love and support them.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2018 as National Veterans and Military Families Month. I encourage all communities, all sectors of society, and all Americans to acknowledge and honor the service, sacrifices, and contributions of veterans and military families for what they have done and for what they do every day to support our great Nation.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand eighteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-third.
DONALD J. TRUMP
When Americans plan their vacations, we try to plan for everything. When service members plan for vacations, you can increase that ten-fold. But no one could have planned for the heart-wrenching end to this military family’s trip.
Army Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ommy Irizarry and his wife Rebecca were celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary. The couple and their three children Oceana, Ommy Jr. and Ava were vacationing in Venice, Florida from SFC. Irizarry’s duty station at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
On Sunday, July 27th, the Iraq War Veteran and nine year old Oceana were walking on Caspersen Beach, collecting shells and shark teeth, when the two were struck by a small plane that had lost power and was forced to crash land. Witnesses reported that the plane made no sound as it neared the beach, and that SFC. Irizarry and Oceana most likely never heard the approaching plane. Unfortunately, they were unable to get out of the way.
SFC. Irizarry, 36, died at the scene. Oceana died two days later at All Children’s Hospital. She is remembered as a quick-witted, artistic child who had many friends, and loved her family.
SFC. Irizarry is a native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He joined the Army in 2002 and deployed twice to Iraq. He is remembered as an exemplary soldier, mentor, friend, father and husband.
On the morning of the accident, the Irizarry’s ninth wedding anniversary, SFC. Irizarry posted the following message on his Facebook:
“Today, 9 years ago, I tied my life to my beautiful wife, Rebecca Irizarry. Wow, how fast time has passed! They say time flies when you are having fun. It is true. Thank you for being with me through thick and thin. I love you with all my heart, mi Roma. I am very happy and can’t wait to see what the next 100 have in store for us. I love you, Becci.”
Whenever tragedy strikes a military family, it resonates throughout the military community. Our deepest condolences and sympathies go out to the Irizarry family. Friends of the family have started The Irizarry Family Memorial Fund. Please follow the link to donate to the family *or* say a few encouraging words in their time of need.
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Military Connection: Tragedy Hits Military Family: By Debbie Gregory