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Local troops, families find ways to celebrate holidays while separated

Sgt. First Class Megan Garrison takes a part of home with her everywhere she goes on deployment, whether it’s a dusty training mission in Afghanistan or a work tent in Kuwait.

Sometimes carried in a pouch on her back of her uniform, a stuffed bear has the recorded voices of her children, Isabella and Lincoln.

“I have learned a ton about myself on this deployment,” the Springfield soldier said in an email Tuesday from Kuwait. “Mostly how much I value family.”

Garrison and her compatriots from southwest Ohio will be in Kuwait, Afghanistan and other duty stations around the world on Thanksgiving Day, separated from family on a holiday where others gather together back home.

Ohio Army National Guard Soldiers with the Springfield-based 371st Sustainment Brigade have deployed to Camp Arifjahn, Kuwait and the Middletown-based 324th Military Police Co. headed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan this year.

Thanksgiving overseas

The Ohio soldiers will go to work, work out, play sports or video games, send Facebook messages or call home, they said in Skype interviews.

“That day will probably be just like any other for most of us,” said Staff Sgt. Alan Hawkins, 25, of Hamilton, assigned to the 324th Military Police Co. and in Afghanistan. “It’s going to be get up in the morning, go to the gym. After that it’s usually get ready for shift. … And then afterwards, the same thing, but it probably will be using the phones or computers to talk to family back home.”

Spc. Clint Strong, 24, of Kettering, will break out of his routine of sorting mail as a National Guard postal clerk in Kuwait on Thanksgiving. He’ll have the day off, but the time off is no less a reminder of where he’s at.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to be away from family and knowing about the holidays back home and the traditions they do that you won’t be a part of at this time.”

Married with two small children, Spc. Kaycee Pelfrey, 28, of Hamilton, tries to talk to his family “every day, if I can,” the Seven Mile, Ohio police officer said. “They usually send me a care package about every two weeks with letters from my children and pictures and things like that.”

Sgt. First Class Brent Kraft, 42, has a wife and a 16-year-old stepdaughter and an 8-year-old son at home in Middletown.

His wife, Tracy, has adapted as best she can to his absence, said Kraft, a manager of a hot strip mill at AK Steel when not in uniform.

“She’s had a lot of growing pains and trying to figure out what it is that she can or can’t do to help us out over here,” he said. “I try to call my wife every day. My highlight of each day is being able to talk to her and she’s been my voice of reason and she keeps me in the right state of mind.”

This 12-month deployment that started in April isn’t like the 20-month tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait he had a decade ago escorting convoys and handling customs duties. “For this one to be a 12-month deployment it’s a lot shorter and it’s a lot easier to get through in that time frame,” he said. “But still the separation from home is difficult.”

First deployment

Like Garrison, Spc. Iesha Norwood, 26, of Dayton, is on her first deployment, this one to a work tent in Kuwait.

“It’s been pretty hard,” she said in a Skype interview. “I’ve missed everyone’s birthday. I’m going to miss every holiday. But it’s not as terrible as I thought it was going to be because everybody here has basically become family.”

Her mother, Gloria-Ann Norwood, 46, of Dayton is a retired Air Force first sergeant, but was never away from her daughter like the year that Iesha Norwood will be gone.

“It’s sad not to have her for a whole year at a time,” Gloria-Ann Norwood said. “We’re not going to do any traditional (holiday) celebrating this year. We don’t want to celebrate while she is not able to be a part of it.”

She has stayed in touch via the Internet. “She sounds fine and she seems to be doing great, and she’s adapted well and I think it just makes her stronger. She’ll come back as a stronger woman.”

Elizabeth McDonough, 57, of Beavercreek, grew accustomed to easily arranged get-togethers with her daughter, Megan Garrison.

“It’s lonely,” McDonough said. “We do a lot together as a family, probably more so than the average family.”

She’s stayed on the go while her daughter is gone. “I’m busy with day-to-day things,” she said. “Megan is with her family of soldiers, but it’s still not family.”

Jason Moore, 35, Garrison’s former husband, watches the children while she is deployed.

“Technology has been a huge assistance,” he said. Garrison and her children keep in contact through Facebook and Skype while she waits for care packages Moore’s wife packs highlighted by Isabella’s colored drawings.

Moore said it’s difficult for the children to understand how far away their mother is. “The first few months were definitely difficult for them,” he said.

Now it’s harder on Garrison than her children, she said.

“They’re very, very busy with sports and keeping up with family and stuff,” the soldier said. “But it’s been a really, really different experience for me. This is the longest that I’ve ever been away from them.”

She’s missed her son’s kindergarten graduation. “I missed the start of his first grade, but I’ll be there for the end of it hoping I won’t miss too many more milestones,” she said.

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