Last year, Dominican Father JohnBosco Ikemeh, Catholic chaplain at the Charleston Air Force Base, received a visit from a young airman first class who came to his office on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
He could tell the young man had been crying, and the airman started to cry again after sitting down. He told a story about calling home on Thanksgiving, speaking to family and friends who were celebrating, and then having to spend time alone while on duty over the holiday.
“He did not have time to attend the services and dinner organized for the airmen on base,” Father Ikemeh said. “He got off work and went to the dorms and there was no food. There was no restaurant open. He ended up buying whatever he could get at a gas station. Then he came back to his room and cried for home, for family and friends. Life could not have been lonelier.”
This was just one airman’s experience, but it is symbolic of the difficult emotions thousands of military men and women will face this year during the holidays. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have many soldiers and U.S. Marines facing their first, second, or even third deployments, and in turn their families deal with the emotion and fears of having a loved one far away.
Military chaplains and civilian priests that serve parishes full of military personnel said there are simple things Catholics can do to support the troops and their families. These things take on special meaning during the holidays, they said, but it’s important to carry them on throughout the year because the emotional challenges of military service are constant.
“The life of our men and women in the military is a life of sacrifice,” Father Ikemeh said. “While many of us are in bed under some comfortable blanket, they are up keeping watch … Some of them pay the ultimate price for our safety.”
Prayer is one of the most important forms of support anyone can offer.
“We need to pray for soldiers and their families every day, not just during the holidays,” said Father Edward J. Kelley, a chaplain major in the U.S. Army who leads St. Michael’s military parish at Fort Jackson in Columbia.
“Every church should have soldiers and their families in the prayers of the faithful every day, especially in South Carolina where we have so many National Guard and Reserve soldiers,” he said.
Father Ikemeh suggested having Masses offered for the well-being of a specific member of the military or for an entire unit.
A listening ear can be one of the greatest gifts to give someone just home from deployment, or a family member who misses their loved one.
“Anyone who comes back from combat, who has seen the aftermath of car bombs, bodies and wounded men and women, is going to be affected,” Father Kelley said. “Don’t push them to describe what they’ve been through, but if and when they talk, listen and reassure them.”
Father Robert J. Sayer, pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Lexington, said his parish currently has more than 24 members who are deployed overseas. He grew up in a Navy household, and knows firsthand the stress of having a family member far away and possibly in danger. He encouraged people to be tactful when discussing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If you’re going to say something to them, be supportive of the troops and the sacrifice they’re making,” he said. “Thank military parents for the values they instilled in their children that would make them willing to risk their lives for others.”
Women and men with spouses who are deployed need a lot of support, and the simplest acts of kindness can mean the most.
“If you see the grass is getting long, cut it for them,” Father Sayer said. “Watch the kids while they run errands.”
Father Kelley said it is important to include military spouses in social activities.
“What happens is they become the odd person out all of a sudden,” he said. “They’re used to being married and all of a sudden they’re alone. Another important thing to do is listen to their fears. Don’t simply say ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’”
Other simple acts can bring joy to people like the airman Father Ikemeh met.
“Drop off some goodies at the base chapel, send holiday gifts to troops, call the local base office or the chapel and ask to wish an airman or a soldier a happy holiday.
“Those who have given all to serve us deserve some appreciation,” he said.