Christmas means something different when you deploy

It’s the quiet moments on deployment when the sadness, and the loneliness you feel, comes rushing in, filling the silence. Holidays give you too much time to think about how much people you love are in each others’ company, and you are not.

So you try to avoid the silence.

As I packed a bright pink Santa hat into my luggage for my upcoming leave, I chuckled to myself with a wave of nostalgia. I’d worn it the previous year, with my uniform. In absence of family and tradition, deployed personnel create non-traditional (and frequently goofy) ways of celebrating the holidays. This time of year, you rely especially heavily on the camaraderie of your unit.

This time last year I was on deployment, living on a small post in the Middle East, my eventual move to Bahrain still months away and not yet even considered a possibility.

On Christmas Eve, we drove off the base and into the beige desert. We’d been here a month, and it was still surreal. We bashed between the dunes, the driver furiously shifting the gears. At every bump, I envisioned our SUV tumbling head on into a ditch, yet an exhilarated grin would not leave my face.

Related: 5 things I actually miss about being deployed on Christmas »

We put the vehicle into park as the sun set, the orange light engulfing everything. It still looked like a movie set to me. Had there been a second setting sun, we could have been on Tatooine.

We didn’t have much of a holiday routine on Christmas Day. We had a distinguished visitor on our camp, so besides sleeping in, it was a regular work day: checking email in the joint operations center, writing reports, wearing a proper uniform, and standing in formation.

We had all saved the recent shipment of care packages for that morning, some to open with our deployment family on Christmas morning on the watch floor; others to be opened on Skype when our families in the United States woke up hours later. We had built a Christmas Tree from beat up red, white and blue cardboard, flat-rate shipping boxes.

The care packages’ mere arrival moved each of us. They could have been filled with junk. It was best of all to know that people went out of their way to fill a box, write a card, and navigate the post office’s inconvenient hours just so we would have presents to open, and know that we were missed.

Our notoriously inconsistent dining facility served a mediocre meal that made me long for ship food (the holiday meals enjoyed the previous year underway on my last ship were actually gastronomic masterpieces). But there’s no Skype on ship, I reminded myself, remembering that on the ship, with limited phones and all of them in public places, I just waited until we hit port every few months or so to call my parents.

After dinner, everyone else on camp went back to their containerized housing units to call home. It was after nightfall in the beige country, and Christmas morning at home.

I sat on my rack, opened my laptop and the blue glow of Skype dialed the East Coast. The air conditioning on full blast in my aluminum unit was a poor comparison for the chill I knew was coming through the windows as it snowed outside on the other side of the line. An iPad was passed around the room of family and friends in America. I longed to feel the warmth of hugging them all.

My Skype session was nearing its conclusion. I looked into the screen at the blue eyes of someone I loved. We didn’t know when we would see each other again. We knew it would be at least a year.

“Are you safe?” he asked.

“I’m safe.”

The pause. Silence is beautiful in the company of those you love — friends as well as lovers. Over Skype, it’s always uncomfortable.

“Tomorrow?” I asked. My morning would be Christmas night there. Another sleep and we could connect again.

“We’ll see.”

“All right. Good Night. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. Goodbye.”

A few lingering seconds, and then the tone of disconnecting. I was alone again.

I closed my computer and put it on the floor next to my rack. The lull of other voices emanated through the thin aluminum walls, no words audible; tones affectionate and low. I turned off the light.

My holidays this year will be filled with family, warmth, and lots and lots of hugs. There will be silence too — the kind that falls in a house after everyone has eaten too much; cousins sharing a blanket and napping on opposite sides of the couch, perhaps the musical clanging of dishes being done in the kitchen nearby.

If you are home, revel in decadent moments. Sing along with the Christmas music, enjoy the the awkward bickering of a healthy family, and send care packages now and in the future to your friends overseas — don’t forget that they will still have the watch for months to come.

And if you have the watch this year, far away in the distance of deployment, know that you are missed.