Not exactly home for Christmas: Soldiers, families celebrate apart
By Julia Nagy/The Natchez Democrat
Tyler Stacy spent every penny of his paycheck on his family last Christmas; this Christmas he won’t see them opening any gifts at all.
Stacy is a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Afghanistan, where he works to clear mine fields.
He left the Miss-Lou in August, after his family threw an early Christmas celebration in his honor, but this is his first Christmas away from home.
Stacy’s family gathered Saturday for their Christmas celebration, and Stacy found a way to make an appearance.
He communicated with the family via Skype, a video chat service that allows both sides to see and hear each other through their computer screens.
“It means a lot,” Stacy said. “I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without at least getting to talk to them.”
Stacy’s mother, Regina Bandy, said it was difficult not having her son around for the holidays.
“Just not having him here is different,” Bandy said.
Normally, the entire family gets together for a Cajun Christmas in which everyone brings a gift and family members can swap and steal gifts. The family disregarded that this year, buying gifts for Stacy and his unit instead.
Candy, board games, footballs and Nerf guns were all sent overseas to provide his unit with some cheer.
Dealing with distance during the holidays is a part of life for many military families, and everyone handles it differently.
Natchez resident Lisa Swinny sent care packages to her sons stationed overseas. Her sons Ted, a security forces task sergeant in Afghanistan, and Lee, an airmen first class in the Air Force stationed in Italy, will miss their first Christmas this year.
Christmas is a special time for Swinny. When she was 18, she gave Ted up for adoption. Before his deployment in 2009, he wanted to find his birth parents, and he was reunited with Swinny that Christmas.
“It’s been really nice having my family complete,” Swinny said.
Since Ted completed the picture, Swinny’s whole family has been together on Christmas, but this year is different.
“As a mother, mothers want all their children all together,” Swinny said. “With this being the first time, it’s been very difficult. It’s hard getting into the Christmas spirit.”
Swinny’s brother Bob Lively is also stationed in Afghanistan.
Lively’s foster mom Charlene Rushing of Vidalia said she’s more worried about the effect Christmas overseas will have on her foster son than on herself.
Lively has eight children.
“I’m more just thinking about how he’s going to be out there by himself,” Rushing said. “I just think about him not being with his kids. He’s got people in his unit, but it’s just not the same.”
Rushing is hosting Christmas at her house, with Lively’s wife and some of the children.
“It just makes me sad,” Rushing said. “He’s very family oriented and just adores his kids and would much rather be with his children.”
Natchez resident Oscar Seyfarth, who was in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, knows what today’s military families are facing. Seyfarth was stationed in Vietnam for two years and in Japan for three.
“The way we dealt with it was we had our buddies there with us, so we made our own families,” Seyfarth said. “When you’re in a war zone, your buddies are your family. It brings you closer to home that you’re so far away from them.”
While stationed overseas, Seyfarth and his unit would decorate trees and sing Christmas carols, anything to bring in a little holiday spirit, he said.
For soldiers currently overseas, Seyfarth said the best advice is to hang on a bit longer.
“Do your job,” Seyfarth said. “Keep your head down. Bring it home for next year. We’ll make it back.”
Christmas in Afghanistan
A few Christmas lights, stockings and a tree in the station’s hallway decorate the base where Tyler Stacy is stationed. He said his unit has been trying to get into the holiday spirit by watching Christmas movies.
Stacy said he was “too excited” receiving the presents from his family.
“I can’t really get the things I want or need that easy here, so it was a tremendous help,” Stacy said.
As for Christmas, the unit hopes to eat a holiday meal together.
“I’m not sure if that’ll work out,” Stacy said. “It’s hard to plan a normal day here.”
Christmas has been rough for Stacy. Normally, he’s surrounded by more than 30 family members, uncles and aunts, little cousins for the holidays.
“It’s a lot different,” Stacy said. “It’s hard to get into the holiday spirit, but we manage to anyhow. I’m definitely missing spending time with them… and the cooking.”
The holidays have been rough for his mother back home as well.
“It’s going to be a quiet Christmas,” Bandy said. “Tyler is just outgoing and very happy all the time and very selfless. He likes to joke around and play around.”
The family waited for Bandy to arrive before starting Stacy’s Skype call Saturday. Bandy walked into the house, greeting her relatives with a hug and walked over to a laptop in the living room.
She clutched the computer, her daughter Rachel and Stacy’s uncle Chase Callon sitting beside her.
“Hi Tyler,” Bandy beamed.
After a brief chat, she moved the computer into the dining room where it was quieter and where there was a Christmas tree.
She called over his cousins.
Stacy leaned forward in his chair toward his computer screen, telling his 6-year-old cousin Caroline Gremillion to come a little closer.
“Did you lose a tooth?” Stacy exclaimed with a wide grin.
Gremillion flashed him a big smile, showing off a missing front tooth.
Family members waited in line in front of a small table with a Christmas tree patterned tablecloth, each getting a chance to sit down and talk to Stacy.
His young cousins all crowded around, yelling “Merry Christmas,” and waving enthusiastically.
His 5-year-old cousin Ethan McSwain just laughed at everything Stacy was saying.
His uncle Gary Blackwell wanted to let Stacy know he killed a 10-point deer.
They all asked how he was doing, what the weather was like, what time it was in Afghanistan.
“It was great,” Blackwell said about Skyping his nephew. “It looks like he’s doing good. I know he enjoys talking to everybody and seeing them.”
Stacy said he misses his family, but was happy to at least talk to them via Skype.
“I’m so very thankful for being able to talk to them, even if I’m not there to actually see them in person,” Stacy said. “We are still close, and that’s what matters to me.”