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12-24-06, 07:23 AM
Sunday, December 24, 2006 — Time: 8:20:43 AM EST
Keeping the spirit: Military families keep loveds ones who are far away during the holidays close to their hearts

By Jennifer Babulsky, jbabulsky@altoonamirror.com

It’s become an unfortunate yearly tradition — Pfc. Benedict Misko III missing the holidays with his family. The 20-year old has missed every Thanks-giving and Christmas for the past three years because he was first going through boot camp in the Marines and then was serving in Iraq.

He’s currently in his second tour of duty, stationed northwest of Baghdad, and isn’t expected to be back home until April. That leaves his family once again ringing in the holidays and the new year without him. But while he’s far from home, he is still remembered.

“We decorated the tree in Marine Corps colors (scarlet and gold) the last three years,” his mother, Vickie Misko of Altoona, said. “We wish he was here. He made up his mind to go into the Marine Corps since he was in the eighth grade and he has a little brother (Mike, 13) who’s talking about the Marines.”

The military seems to be a Misko family tradition. Other men in the family, including Benedict’s father, Benedict Jr. (known as Paul), were Marines, and Bene-dict’s 18-year-old sister, Jacqueline, leaves Feb. 19 for Air Force boot camp in Texas.

Fighting back tears, Vickie described missing her son and the heartache she feels when she doesn’t hear from him thanks to uncooperative phone lines.

“He gets on a laptop and he can let us know (he’s OK) that way, but when we don’t hear from him, you’re always wondering if he’s OK,” she said. “We just go day by day. It’s hard.”

It’s difficult for families like the Miskos, but imagine being the military members so far away from home. To keep connected during the holidays, many send care packages to their loved ones whether they’re stationed in the U.S. or in other countries. The Miskos send Benedict care packages with things he needs and Vickie belongs to the United States Armed Forces Mothers, a local group of women who send packages to members of the military throughout the year, as well as cards.

The group just sent 100 holiday care packages all over the country and the world, including 43 to Iraq, to men and women with local ties serving in the military. Birthday cards with money, gifts and holiday cards are sent throughout the year, and an emergency leave fund is maintained for those sponsored, said Lou Ann Leamer, the group’s president. Every two months, the group sends care packages to Iraq and two or three times a year, clothing packages are sent to military hospitals in Germany and the U.S.

Packages sent around Christmas contain homemade cookies, fudge, cards, letters and colored pictures from children, a gift, toiletries and numerous food items. Children of those getting the packages are also sent toys.

“They love that touch of home,” Leamer said. “What we’re trying to do is let them not only know we love and support them, but their community does as well. It’s a satisfying feeling to do the things we do.”

Leamer knows about celebrating the holidays with a loved one elsewhere. In 1989, she got involved with the national United States Air Force Mothers when her oldest son, Gary, went in the Air Force. Gary spent a couple years in Germany, then Bahrain during the Gulf War.

“I did my tree in red, white and blue during the first Gulf conflict,” Lou Ann said. “Christmas especially was a busy time because he’d call when family was here, and I’d always send boxes and a little Christmas tree to put in the box. One year I sent him a little dancing tree.”

Lou Ann said the best advice may seem like the hardest — keep busy and positive. Otherwise, loved ones in the military could pick up on stress and in turn, become stressed themselves.

“The most important thing is to keep busy, keep the spirit and let them know you love them, support them and keep in touch with them,” she said. “It’s important to keep the morale up.”

Keeping positive thoughts is hard this holiday season for the Cherry family of Tipton. Lance Cpl. Dwayne Cherry II, 19, is stationed near Ramadi, Iraq, his first Christmas away from home.

“It is difficult and every day is a worry,” his mother, Brenda Cherry, said. “We’ve sent him packages with the things he needs. The mothers group (Armed Forces Mothers) is a big support system because they know what you’re going through.”

Her niece, Betsy Cherry of York Springs, 19, was deployed in September to Baghdad as part of the Army Reserves.

She’s sent her own care packages and even some calling cards from her family.

Back at home, Brenda, her husband, Dwayne, and their three daughters will still celebrate Christmas, just without their son.

“It’s a normal celebration, he just won’t be there,” Brenda said.

“We’ll be thinking about him. I appreciate people thinking of the troops, supporting the troops and the prayers. There’s nothing else really people can do. Don’t forget them,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Jennifer Babulsky is at 946-7460.

Support circle

For support or to learn more about celebrating the holidays with loved ones in the military stationed far from home, call Lou Ann Leamer, president of the United States Armed Forces Mothers, at 943-7122