Missing loved ones, Island military families struggle through holidays

Freeland residents John and Chelle Brunke pose with a picture of their son, Air Force Capt. Peter Brunke. - Janis Reid / The Record
Freeland residents John and Chelle Brunke pose with a picture of their son, Air Force Capt. Peter Brunke.
— image credit: Janis Reid / The Record

Bev and Clay Miller got engaged and then spent their entire engagement apart while Clay was on deployment as a Navy pilot. Daughter of a Navy pilot who served in Vietnam, Bev knew the drill.

“We both come from military families,” Bev said. “Because of the familiarity, I knew what to expect. But it still wasn’t easy.”

The Millers are just one example of the military families who deal with family on deployment. While being apart is tough year round, the distance of loved ones seems all the more difficult around the holidays. Even though she later experienced several deployments as a spouse, some during holidays, Bev was unprepared for how it feels to have her sons deployed overseas. The Millers have five sons, all serving in some branch of the military, representing the Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard and the NJROTC.

“I don’t worry about them, but my babies are gone. My little boys,” she said.

Currently two of their sons are serving abroad. Seth, 21, is serving in Bahrain with the Coast Guard and is not expected back until June. Ben, 23, is serving with the Marines somewhere in Afghanistan with an uncertain return date.

All but the youngest, Stephen, an Oak Harbor High School Student in the NJROTC, have been deployed over the holidays at one point or another, Bev said.

She added that Skype (video chat) has been very helpful in staying connected with her boys, although depending on their mission, they may not have access.

“We deployed in the dark ages,” Bev said of the lack of email and video chat during Clay’s service. “But he never missed a Christmas.”

Clay said that the military does a good job of caring for their troops during the holidays. Still, he said, he likes to see all his sons out of combat and safe at home.

When it’s allowable, Bev sends her boys Christmas boxes filled with a stocking, small necessities and battery-powered Christmas lights. Once she sent a live Christmas tree through a company that caters specifically to the military.

The Millers recommend prayer and communicating with loved ones as often as possible to help get through difficult deployments. They also said it’s important to make the most of the loved ones who are able to come home for the holidays.

“You have to make the most of those who are home, and don’t take away from the others because you’re missing one of them,” Clay said.

John Brunke, who retired in 1995 after 20 years as an electronic technician, was stationed in the Philippines with the Navy during Vietnam. While stationed there, his wife, Chelle, received only two phone calls over an 18-month period. The second call was to tell her that he was going to be home that Christmas.

Back then, said Chelle, letters didn’t arrive for 2-3 weeks so communication was scarce and delayed.

Today, John and Chelle are the proud parents of Capt. Peter Brunke, a navigator with the Air Force who until recently had been serving in Iraq.

Like the Millers, the Brunkes have been grateful for the new technologies that make it easier to keep in touch with deployed loved ones.

And the one Christmas he missed, he volunteered to stay because he was single, and he wanted those with wives and families to go home, Chelle Brunke said.

Surviving long deployments over holidays is all about keeping things light, Chelle Brunke said.

Her favorite thing to do is to send a box of “silly things” — like a flying, screaming-monkey slingshot doll. She likes to picture the soldiers in a desolate place enjoying a little levity with a few nonsense items, she said. She has been known to send up to 12 boxes to her son and all of his military buddies.

Another good tip, she said, is to make a list of good things you want to tell them when they are able to call.

“You can’t always ask them what they’re doing or where they are, so it’s kind of a one-sided conversation,” Chelle said. “Sometimes you can’t think of things offhand so it’s good to list them.”

Lt. Matthew McCormick, a naval flight officer, has been gone since April. He was supposed to be back in October, but his deployment was extended. He should be back before Christmas, but there’s no way to really know, his wife, Angela McCormick, said.

While Matthew McCormick has yet to miss a Christmas, he has missed nearly every one of their anniversaries and Thanksgivings. Angela is a registered nurse who until recently worked at Skagit Valley Medical Center and served as ombudsman for VAQ 129.

“It’s frustrating. You never really know if they’re going to come home the day they are supposed to,” Angela said. “You have to plan for anything.”

The couple’s 2-year-old daughter is doing “okay,” Angela said, but is getting old enough to recognize that her father is not here.

“She asks about him a lot,” Angela said. “It makes it hard with a child that has no concept of the time that has passed.”

To help with the distance, Angela said she has created a “daddy doll” with Matthew’s picture on it. Matthew also recorded several books on video so that he can read to his daughter every night.

The videos have gotten their daughter through more than one tough night.

“One night she woke up in the middle of the night. She was sick and kept asking for her daddy,” Angela said. “We got out a video and she had a chat with him. We talk to him on Facetime (video chat) a lot and I don’t think she knew the difference.”

Angela said it’s important to be patient with children who are missing their family members, and it’s best to try to keep them busy. It’s also important to support the loved one who is serving.

“Be encouraging to loved ones who are deployed,” Angela said. “Ensure them that we are home thinking of them and loving them.”

They email fairly often but rarely talk on the phone while he is on a carrier because the connection is poor, causing sound delays and making it frustrating to communicate. Emailing is key, she said.

“It’s unfortunate because some don’t hear from loved ones by email and start to panic if they don’t hear from their person,” Angela said. “At least once each conversation Matthew says he loves us and misses us. I think they start to worry if they are being missed.”


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