Jacey Eckhart: Have You Got Wrong Idea About Deployment Christmas?

Christmas commercials featuring military families just slay me. I caught this new one the other day in which a deployed dad sits on his sad little cot in a tent full of sleeping Soldiers.

Under a bare bulb, the Soldier dad listens as his child's scratchy voice emerges from the recordable. He cries.

The television audience cries.

Shoot, I cry. I cry every time. And then I just wanna wrestle someone to the ground. Because these commercials have nothing to do with what Christmas is actually like for those deployed. Which is probably why we folks at home send such stupid packages. We mean well. We just watch too much TV.

The first time my own husband deployed at Christmastime, I had a TV deployment dancing in my head. I sent my husband a Monopoly game, for heaven's sake. Some kind of wind up toy. A video of our baby daughter. I had this idea that the Sailors would spend Christmas day talking about their families, passing gifts from man to man, eating cookies sent by well-meaning strangers and generally cheering themselves up like Pierce and Honeycutt on M*A*S*H.

Not so much.

Military folks WORK on Christmas day. It is just another working day to them marked, perhaps, by the presence of a turkey and a ham. I didn't know that. My Christmas package proved it. I cringe now at the thought of my husband opening his presents and realizing that the person who loved him best in the world didn't know jack about his life.

How could I? I had no way of knowing that my darling was working 18-hour days in a steam plant on a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf. I didn't understand how bone-deep his exhaustion was. I had no reference point for imagining 400 homesick people crammed together in a small space. I didn't know that deployment Christmas was something military members had to swallow -- like flat Coke, like cough syrup, like barium.

Our servicemembers shield us from that, as if even the smallest part of their reality is too much to explain. I just remember how puzzled I was when Brad's Christmas gifts came home at the bottom of a sea bag that year. He had not watched but a few seconds of the video of our baby, any more than that imaginary Soldier dad on TV listened to but a few seconds of his faraway child's recorded voice.

When Brad was getting ready to deploy last Christmas, I asked if he wanted me to send him a DVD of the holiday show at school, of Peter's swim lessons, of the visit with our extended families. He wanted a digital picture frame instead. "Pictures are good," Brad said. "But seeing people move? Hearing their voices? That's too much for me. I just try to keep focused on what has to be done that day, not what I am missing at home."

Maybe that is what we gift givers need to keep in mind when wrapping packages for those abroad. Instead of sending them what we think they need to have, perhaps instead they need a little comfort and joy, a little peace on Earth, a little bit of shielding from all the precious life they are missing at home.

-- Jacey Eckhart is a military life consultant in Washington, D.C. She is the author of "The Homefront Club" and the voice behind the award-winning CD "These Boots." Facebook Jacey or contact her at jacey@jaceyeckhart.com.

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