For most, the holiday season creates joyful memories as you spend time with those you hold dear. But for close to 450,000 military families whose loved ones are deployed, the holiday season is experienced in a very different way: with an empty chair and an overwhelming desire to be together.
Brandon and Jennifer Dostert of Benton are one such family. Since January of this year, Brandon has been on his third deployment to the Middle East serving as a UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief and aircraft maintenance quality control staff sergeant. “We had a year to prepare for this deployment, but we were no more prepared the day he left than when we first found out,” recalls Jennifer. “I am very proud of him. He has a different kind of strength than I do.”
The couple have three children: Carson, 8; Camden, 7; and Courtlyn, 4. As if raising three children essentially as a single parent isn’t enough, Jennifer obtained her bachelor’s degree in nursing during Brandon’s deployment and is now a clinical instructor at UALR and a substitute school nurse for the Benton School District, she teaches color guard for the Benton High School Band and works on an “as needed” basis for Baptist Hospital. In her “spare” time, and more as a luxury than a source of income, Jennifer is also an independent beauty guide with LimeLight. “It’s important for the kids and me to stay busy. With LimeLight, I work at my own pace and the products sell themselves, but the biggest advantage is that it’s a distraction. I get to have girl fun with a great group of ladies who support, empower and encourage me.”
Brandon and Jennifer work hard to make his deployment as easy as possible for the family, and even more so during the holidays. “Being apart is still very difficult, especially this time of year, but this time, it’s a little easier because of technology that allows us to talk every day. We use technology to help get us through. Brandon reads stories to the kids via FaceTime and sometimes, he dresses up as the character in the story or uses a sock puppet while reading. Camden has autism, so it’s hard for him to interact, but when he sees Brandon reading on the TV or iPad, his eyes light up.” In addition to story time, Brandon and Jennifer brainstorm creative ways for him to connect with each child’s interests. “Brandon and Carson construct matching Lego sets together and with Courtlyn, he schedules tea parties, with fatigues and all.
Brandon and Jennifer essentially “do life” together via the Internet 365 days a year, including the holidays. “We make lists and pick out Christmas gifts online, and we even use FaceTime at the Christmas tree farm so Brandon can be a part of picking out our family tree.” Although an official date has not been set, Brandon is scheduled to come home early January 2018. “I dream that Brandon is fibbing about when he is coming home, and I hope and pray that he’ll actually be home for Christmas this year.” But if not, Jennifer will have Santa’s gifts with the kids, and Brandon via FaceTime, on Christmas morning and wait for his actual arrival to open family gifts.
Jennifer relies on the support of her family and friends to make hectic schedules come together. The kids are involved in cello lessons, cheer, softball and soccer. Everyone works together to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that the kids don’t miss out because Dad is deployed. “My dad helps with maintenance things around the house, and my mom helps with housework and taking Camden to autism therapies. Preparing Camden was my biggest worry. I’m an adult and I’ve been through this before, but figuring out a way to meet his emotional needs without him being able to ask for it was a concern.”
In addition to Jennifer’s community of family and friends, military spouses rally around each other. “Camp Robinson has a Family Readiness Group (FRG) that plans family outings, sends newsletters and hosts pre-deployment yellow ribbon events.” Perhaps most importantly, once soldiers are back from deployment, the Family Readiness Group coordinates activities that help post-deployment family members reintegrate back into family life. “The FRG has a couples retreat with guest speakers that help you learn how to live together as a family again. I have my morning and evening routine, and I’ve been doing it by myself, so we will have to work together to figure out the ‘new norm.’” According to Military.com, when a couple has been living separate lives for an extended period of time through deployment, they change, both individually and as a couple. Once reunited, they are forced to learn how to live together again and adjust to their new roles and responsibilities; this is a process known as reintegration.
Jennifer says the best way to help military families through the holidays, and every day, is to offer support and encouraging words. “Brandon always motivates me by encouraging me, telling me what a good job I am doing and acknowledging how hard it is. When things get hard, we look ahead. Instead of counting the number of days until he comes home, we count the number of paydays. It’s a smaller number. We’ll have times when we think, ‘It’s not fair,’ but a lot of how you cope is about perspective and looking for the positive. Planning for the future and having dreams together helps us get through the reality of now.”
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” a line from the 1943 Bing Crosby classic, still rings true for military families spending the holidays apart. Prayerfully, Brandon Dostert, our Saline County neighbor, will make it home in time for Christmas this year.
Thank you, Brandon, Jennifer and all the military families who give so much all year long.