Category Archives: Holidays

Military Family Holiday Memories: No Two Are the Same

Ahhh, the holidays are upon us. Visions of sugar cookies, crackling fires, and peaceful family gatherings swirl in my dreams. I’ve often wondered how different life would be enjoying the holidays in exactly the same way every year.

Those idyllic scenes of returning home to grandma’s, posing for pictures in front of the same porch, enjoying the same meals, year after year after year. No chaos, no planning, no surprises. Then I wake up, laugh to myself, and return to the life I actually live. A wild but wonderful, unpredictable but rewarding, chaotic and crazy military kind of life!

Steady, constant, and calm have never been in our vocabulary. Early years of marriage brought us overseas where Christkindl Markts, warm mugs of gluhwein, and a small, budget-restricted return home to grandma. An old photo of the two of us, our dog on our lap, and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the background is a happy, but quiet, reminder that we were not surrounded by family that first year, nor some others that followed.

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Our holiday photo collection has become an eclectic range of locales from snow-capped mountains to sunny beaches to European cities. In many photos, we’re surrounded by family who visited that year, while in others, we’re surrounded by friends and neighbors. A nostalgic one captured our family in a horse drawn carriage, while more somber ones captured the kids opening presents in front of a computer screen with dad on the other end.

This year will be our idyllic return home to both sets of grandmas. No deployment this year, our family unit will be whole. The old photo of the two of us with a dog has since morphed to five of us with a cat. I’m still secretly dreaming of those peaceful family gatherings, the steady and the calm. But who am I kidding? We have been fortunate that the years of celebrating together outnumber the ones spent apart, not one year repeating the previous, not one memory the same as the last.

This holiday season please keep our military families in your thoughts and prayers. Reach out to those who may be separated from loved ones with a simple, “How are you?” Consider inviting a military family who may be dealing with a deployment to join your holiday celebrations, or open your home to a single service member. The most memorable gifts often happen out of the blue and the most cherished ones are surrounded by families and friends who understand.

Are you a military family? What are your most cherished holiday memories?

Posted by Pikkwan Boston, Volunteer & Community Outreach Region Manager

Check Yourself Before You Deck Yourself: Stress Free Holiday Decorating Tips

Are you ready to deck the halls? I’m not. For me, this means heading to the storage closet and playing Russian roulette with the 10 boxes I’ve yet to unpack from my move 6 months ago. Is the Christmas tree in THIS “Holiday stuff” box? Or did I put the Christmas stuff in the OTHER “Decorations” box?

I swore last year would be the year I’d reorganize everything into clear bins, and properly mark everything so that this year would be easier. But then I told myself, “No, you’ll remember that Halloween decorations are in the “Decorations” box, and the Christmas ornaments are in the “Holiday stuff” box. And that garbage bag over there isn’t trash, it’s the wreath for the front door—you know, because I didn’t want it to get smooshed in a box.

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This year, I’m actually getting it together. Maybe you’re in the same boat? If so, let me share some tips that helped me get my holiday decorating game in check:

  1. Declutter all the things. The holidays can be a minimalist’s worst nightmare, and if that’s you, don’t try to take on all the decluttering and purging alone. Get the rest of the family involved in donating and trashing so it gets done before NEXT Christmas. Separate things into categories for quick decision-making; try Donate, Keep, or Trash.
  2. Clean all the things. My mom insisted on cleaning what seemed like the entire house before we could start decorating for the holidays. To knock it out in an instant, we all divvied up the chores to get them done quickly, so the fun decorating party could begin. Someone can dust, while another vacuums, and boom. Everything is clean.
  3. Reorganize before it’s time to repack. Whatever you didn’t donate or trash will have to find its place somewhere after the holidays are over. Will you (like me) need a wreath storage box? Or dividers for all the tree ornaments? Take advantage of holiday sales to buy clear plastic bins, baskets, and other organization essentials. That way, everything has a perfect, little home and you won’t be playing Russian roulette with the boxes next year.
  4. Reduce stress levels one drop at a time. The stress of the holidays rarely leaves any stone unturned, and military families are no exception. Between the holiday leave request getting denied, or the last minute holiday party at your kids’ school, this time of year is a hotbed for emotional fireworks. To ease some of the stress, I put a few drops of an essential oil called Winter Dream into my Venta Airwasher (love!) and my house starts to fill with cinnamon and citrus—a perfect way to calm my nerves and reinvigorate the air in my home.

As a military family, moving boxes become decorations in their own right—a coffee table here, and bookshelf there. And if it doesn’t work with your new house after a PCS move, just shove them into storage…holiday decorations included. This year, try a few of these tips to reduce the stress of decorating and disorganization and savor the season.

What’s your go-to tip for stress-free holiday decorating?

shannonPosted by Shannon Prentice, Content Development Manager

When You #OptOutside, You Change on the Inside

Recently, I left my home on the sunny beaches of Florida, and headed for the Pennsylvania mountains for a few days. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself “outdoorsy,” but maybe I could change? This trip to the mountains was unlike any other I’ve experienced. And there were 30 people meeting me there who’d change my perspective in a matter of hours.

You see, I was headed to NMFA’s Operation Purple Healing Adventures® retreat, a free three-day experience for wounded, ill, injured, medically separated, or medically retired military families. At Healing Adventures, families use outdoor exploration, like hiking and canoeing, to encourage each family member’s growth on their new journey post-injury.

I met and chatted with some of the families as they arrived to the Pocono Environmental Education Center—where we’d be camping for the next few days. Some of us connected over our outdoor skills (or lack thereof), and we shared an excitement for the days ahead.

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I went hiking with a Navy veteran, who injured his back during a deployment training exercise, and listened to his family’s story of resiliency. He shared how it felt helpless to rely on his wife to do things for him, and how devastating it was to tell his crying daughter that he couldn’t pick her up to console her because his back couldn’t support them both. Talking to them, I found out it wasn’t just the service member who had to recover after an injury—the family also has to find a ‘new normal.’ After a few more miles, we made it to the summit of the mountain, and I snapped a photo of them to celebrate the moment. They’d been the through peaks and valleys of military life, but when they stood by each other, no obstacle was unconquerable.

The next day, I watched an Army National Guard veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder share a loving moment with his two adolescent sons as they worked together to coax an ember into a burning fire. When the flame took, the sons high-fived, and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the father looked transformed with pride as he glanced at his wife, who stood next to me, watching. She was nearly in tears when she shared that her family rarely did anything outdoors together because of her husband’s injury. I watched as she encouraged her boys to gently flame the fire, and celebrated with them when it grew in size. Something told me they’d be an outdoorsy family now.

As I shared Thanksgiving dinner with my own family yesterday, I thought about the millions of people who’d be hitting the pavement to take part in the Black Friday hustle and bustle. Waiting in lines and braving the crowds for stuff wasn’t for me. I wanted to #OptOutside.

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Today, REI, parks, nonprofits, companies and communities are all coming together to get more people outdoors on Black Friday instead of standing in line. And we want you to go outside with us! Whether your family takes a walk together to a playground nearby, go for a bike ride, or rock climb on the Appalachian Trial, we know being outside does something good for the soul.

I decided to take my dog on a long walk in the bright Florida sunshine, because being inside on a 75 degree day seemed unjust. While walking, I remembered those two military families from Healing Adventures camp. Being “outdoorsy” together brought them closer, without distraction, without crowds, and without the need for ‘stuff.’

That trip to Healing Adventures, and meeting those families, was the perfect reminder that despite my lack of outdoorsy-ness, when you decided to #OptOutside, you change on the inside.

Join in the #OptOutside movement by simply walking out your front door! When you do, share it with the world using the #OptOutside hashtag!

shannonPosted by Shannon Prentice, Content Development Manager

Alone for Thanksgiving? Think Again!

My husband left to a remote location for an entire year. I knew this was going to be extremely hard for me; I was all alone, with two children, in a place that was not home to me. To top it all off, the holidays were coming. I had never really been alone for the holidays. Money was tight and we even welcomed a baby just a couple of weeks earlier. I had to decide if I really wanted to stay where I was, or go home for the holidays.

This place, I called it, this miserable and awful place.  I was lonely, depressed, and downright stressed out. Let’s not forget exhausted! Don’t get me wrong, the military base where we were stationed was nice, and the military families were very friendly, but it still didn’t feel like home. I hoped my family would fly out and rescue me but no one could make it–not my mom or my in-laws.

I guess I was staying there for Thanksgiving. My kids wouldn’t know it was a holiday, right? What do they know about Thanksgiving, anyway? I thought to myself, “I will just make a TV dinner and call it a day.” Wrong! My four year old asked, “Mommy, when are we getting the turkey?” I responded with, “Not this year, sweetie.”

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The look on his face was like I killed his puppy. So, I had to change that answer with, “First thing tomorrow morning!” Great, so now I have to buy a turkey, cook it and eat the turkey! I wondered how a four year old knew anything about Thanksgiving. But it was clear: he learned from school, and the TV. In his preschool, they made a turkey out of construction paper. When he watched television, they constantly advertised about Thanksgiving. My four year old won and I would be making a turkey that he would probably barely eat.

The next day, I am in the commissary shopping for the turkey, and I see my neighbor. I quickly say hello and continue shopping. “So, what are you guys doing for the holidays?” she asked, all chipper.

Do I lie, and pretend I have plans?

“I am doing nothing,” I said.

Wait…is she giving me the face? You know, the I-feel-sorry-for-you face. Before, I could tell her not to feel bad for me, she came really close, leaned in and whispered, “I’m alone, my husband is gone, and I’m stuck doing absolutely nothing, too.”

Now, I’m giving her the face, right back. We just started laughing, and after a minute, she said to me, “Hey! Why don’t we have dinner together?”

Now that sounds like a great plan.

We invited more military spouses, who were spending Thanksgiving alone, too. Everyone made their own side dish and I cooked the turkey, of course. As we sat down and ate, I thought, to myself, “My husband isn’t here, but I do have my military family.”

If you are feeling alone for the holidays, talk to your fellow military spouses. You never know, you could be buying and cooking the turkey this year, after all!

Do you have a memorable holiday spent with fellow military families? Share it with us!

Posted by LaTanya Roldan, NMFA Volunteer and military spouse, Mountain Home, Idaho

4 Reasons I’m Thankful for my Military Life

I have known one thing my entire life and it is the military lifestyle. I was born into a Navy family where my dad served for 20 years. When I was 19-years-old, I married an Army soldier and moved to another country. And that move was hard at first. Everything and everyone I loved felt worlds away from me. But even that first move taught me about being grateful. I would love to share with you why I am thankful for this amazing life-long experience.

 Traveling. As a military spouse, I serve my country by supporting my husband and the community we live in. One of the many perks of military life is moving! Don’t get me wrong; moving has its own challenges and craziness, but sometimes a move is awesome, and takes you to the most amazing destinations in the world. Thanks to the military I have been able to explore Europe and many places throughout the United States.

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Relationships. Have you ever heard a Soldier or their spouse refer to their friends as their military family? It is a term I use daily. My husband has served for several years, and throughout the years we have added to our family everywhere we have lived. The friends I met in Germany in 2004 are now a few minutes down the road from us. My daughter refers to them as Auntie and Uncle. Throughout the distance, we have talked and FaceTimed. For now at least, I can go over for dinner and be with my military family.

I am extremely grateful for all the love and time I get with these amazing individuals in the military. With deployment after deployment, missions, and schools my blood family cannot always be there for us, but I have my military family.

Support. Since becoming a military spouse, I have seen amazing support for the Soldiers and their families from post to post. And as I mentioned earlier, I was married at 19, and immediately moved to Germany. My husband was going off to war soon, and there I was standing at the Frankfurt airport scared out of my mind. I did not know what to expect as I looked around me. However, I remember how the unit Family Readiness Group, the USO, and Army Community Service reached out to me. I was not alone because of these organizations on post. They were absolutely amazing with support for new and experienced military families.

New traditions. While living in Europe, I was introduced to a lot of new-to-us traditions. In our travels, we took some old traditions and added them to our must-do’s each year! In Germany, we would visit many Christmas markets, which I miss more than anything else. In Texas, we added Bluebonnet pictures each season. Now we are in Kansas, and I cannot wait to add another tradition to the Richardson family. What traditions have you added to your family?

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With everything in life, you have pros and cons; however, I focus on the positive aspects to keep me going and moving forward. I think looking at things from a positive perspective allows me to be thankful and appreciate this unique lifestyle.

Are you a military family? What are you most thankful for?

jrichardsonPosted by Jessica Richardson, NMFA Volunteer and Army spouse

Making the Most of Your Thanksgiving No Matter Where You Are

We had just made a huge cross country move from Washington State to Virginia. All of our friends and family were on the west coast, and we knew absolutely no one in Virginia yet.

Many boxes still needed to be unpacked and main furniture pieces still needed to be purchased. We mastered the ‘old-box-as-a-dining-room-table’ skill early on, but I knew that wouldn’t handle the Thanksgiving dinner that was just around the corner. Money was a little tight from that move and we were alone on the east coast. We didn’t have things set up in our home, but despite all of that, we made it work somehow and tried to see the glass half full; we had our health, my husband’s job, a roof over our heads, and our family.

A co-worker of my husband told him the USO gave Soldiers and their families Thanksgiving meals, and urged him to go grab one. He managed to get a box, and inside were all the sides we would need for a Thanksgiving dinner, and a gift card to purchase our turkey from a grocery store. We felt so thankful that we were able to be blessed during this time. I had been feeling a little down knowing we’d be alone during the holidays, without friends and family to share it with. Getting adjusted to such a big move and change isn’t easy. All I wanted was to make sure my family was happy (just being a typical mom).

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We got the biggest turkey we could get, and I cooked up everything that was inside that USO box. We had such a feast for our family! We even managed to find a great deal on a dining room table from Craigslist, just in time for Thanksgiving.

It just goes to show you–it doesn’t matter where you are, if you keep a positive outlook on life and have a thankful heart, things just fall into place sometimes. It’s been wonderful to look back and see how everything came together, and it will be one Thanksgiving we will never forget.

How do you deal with holidays away from extended family?

amber-budzynski-headshotPosted by Amber Budzynski, NMFA Volunteer and military spouse

Be “On-Point” for Gold Star Families This Memorial Day

May 30th—Memorial Day—marks a unique opportunity for every American to remember and honor those who lost their lives in service to this country for the freedoms we enjoy.

Memorial Day is designated as the last Monday in May each year to honor U. S. military service men and women who died while serving their country. The day is especially poignant for Gold Star Families, those family members who have lost a loved one serving in the military.

Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, which is always celebrated on November 11, and honors all military veterans. The tradition of Memorial Day in America started during the Civil War, first called Declaration Day. After World War I, Declaration Day became a unifying event for the country, officially celebrated on May 30th. In 1968, Congress established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, and declared it as a federal holiday.

The National Moment of Remembrance Resolution, passed in 2000, set a moment of remembrance to be held at 3 p.m., local time, on Memorial Day.

In 1936, the United States government designated the last Sunday in September as Gold Star Mother’s Day. And Gold Star Wives was founded during WWII. Today, the federal government recognizes Gold Star Family Members—mothers, fathers, spouse, children and siblings of those who died in military service.

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Memorial Day was always a special day when I was on active duty. Celebrating the holiday with friends and families of our unit served to strengthen the bond between all of us that endures to this very day.

My family’s fondest memories of Memorial Day were during our six years in the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Division began the Memorial Day celebration the Monday before with a week of sports competitions, memorial services, and alumni events. On Memorial Day, Fort Bragg celebrated with a concert and a spectacular fireworks display.

Serving almost three decades in the military, including command during two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, I was separated from my family frequently and for extended periods of time. So now, our family celebrates Memorial Day together. We share a meal and share memories of our time in service with some of the most remarkable and selfless people we have ever known. We thank God for blessing us with the opportunity to experience life to its fullest, with a mission that was larger than ourselves. We reflect on the unthinkable sacrifice so many endure through the loss of their fallen warrior, and we pray for those Gold Star Family Members.

Now, as a veteran, I have the privilege of serving as director of Point 27. Point 27 partners with military units and other nonprofit organizations to strengthen and encourage members of the Armed Forces, veterans, military families, first responders, athletes, and chronically ill people. Our primary means of encouragement is through jewelry engraved with scripture called Shields of Strength. Shields of Strength serve as a physical reminder of God’s Word, His promises and His unconditional love.

This Memorial Day, Point 27 is teaming with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), another nonprofit, to give more than 2,000 Gold Star Family Members a specially-designed necklace. Each pendant is a replica of a folded American flag like those presented during military funerals and engraved with the words from John 15:13.

The Folded Flag Necklace is a lifetime keepsake, an acknowledgement of the families’ enduring sacrifice, and an assurance that we have not forgotten their loved one.

On Memorial Day, military members, veterans and their families can take significant roles in educating civilians about the sacrifices of military service. Volunteer to speak or help coordinate an honor guard for Memorial Day celebrations and community gatherings. Make a special effort to locate and reach out to Gold Star Family Members, and engage your community in honoring them and supporting nonprofit organizations that focus on Gold Star Families.

We can all be on-point this Memorial Day to make sure America honors and never forgets the fallen and their families.

Posted by Retired Army Colonel David Dodd, Director of Point 27 Ministries, a nonprofit founded by Shields of Strength.