With the holidays approaching, our thoughts turn to spending time with family and friends wherever they may be. Most people can simply hop in the car, board a plane, catch a train, or even walk down the street to see their loved ones. But what if your loved ones are on the other side of the world, deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Connecting with deployed military members during the holidays may seem like a daunting challenge because of distance and circumstances. However, there are several ways to stay in touch with those who matter most.
As a military spouse and veteran for more than 16 years, I have learned some interesting ways to keep in contact with my deployed loved ones. Since the advent of free messenger services such as Yahoo! Messenger and Skype, the ability to connect with a deployed member has increased exponentially. Most Forward Operating Base (FOB) locations have established computer and internet usage areas that service members can use for free, or very little cost. To use the service, members just sign in, pay the required fee (if any) and wait for their turn. While using the service, they have access to many free online messenger services that employ webcams and microphones to allow users to see and speak to each other. In some cases, service members have personal internet service in their rooms, allowing them to chat online whenever they want. My children and I stayed in touch with my husband for 14 months during his last deployment to Iraq, using nothing more than the built-in webcams and microphones on our computers, Yahoo! Messenger and a lot of patience. Although the connection was slow, chats were sometimes dropped and sound reception was sketchy, the chance to see and talk to him was worth it.
Another way to stay in touch is through free video conferencing sessions offered by the service member’s unit. While we were stationed at Schofield Barracks (Hawaii) my husband’s unit offered the use of pre-established video conference equipment for monthly “visits” with deployed personnel. All we had to do was contact the Family Support Group to schedule a time for our visit on the designated day and be on time for our appointment. Each visit lasted 10 to 15 minutes (depending on how long my 7-year-old could sit still), allowing us to see and hear each other, wave and smile. The kids made banners for him, and sang songs or told jokes, which made all of us a lot happier.
A more traditional way to stay connected during the holidays is to send care packages. Although mail times for overseas packages can be delayed during high-demand times, with a little preparation you can get those wish-list items to your loved one in plenty of time. To send a care package, ask the deployed member what they need and want the most. Common items include toiletries, snacks, magazines, movies, music, hand-held video games and sturdy socks. Be sure to only send unbreakable, non-perishable items to avoid damage or loss. If you send liquids such as mouthwash or cologne, place the items into large plastic storage bags to avoid spills. After packing items securely in a sturdy box and take it to the local post office. Any questions regarding forms, package requirements and costs can be answered by postal employees or online at USPS.com. Several online shopping websites also include overseas shipping to military addresses for a reasonable fee; using these services can help you avoid long lines and hassles.
Of course, there’s always the tried-and-true standby: sending a card or letter. Although online chats and packages are fun, every military member can tell you about receiving a card or letter at just the right time during their deployment. Even in our electronic, technological, fast-paced world, there’s something inherently satisfying about getting things in the mail. During my Army basic training, I remember waiting with great anticipation for “mail call” every evening, reading and re-reading every word. The greatest treasures were letters or cards with photos enclosed; snapshots from home were invaluable during long, lonely nights.
No matter how you stay in touch with your deployed loved one, remember to be upbeat and positive during communication. Even if money is limited, a smiling photo and a few kind, hand-written words along with homemade chocolate chip cookies can mean the world to a soldier, sailor or Marine away from family and friends during the holidays!
Laurel D. King