Soldiers' families face holidays with loved ones off at war

Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2005

A number of Juneau families are experiencing the true meaning of sacrifice this Christmas.

The families and soldiers of the Alaska Army National Guard Alpha Co., third Battalion, 297th Infantry have been away from their loved ones for nearly a year. Since being deployed to Baghdad in January, the soldiers have been fighting Operation Iraqi Freedom during birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving and now Christmas.

"It's not an easy sacrifice," said Michael Wright, whose father, Staff Sgt. Robert Wright, is serving in Iraq. "It's not something that anyone could do, especially over the holidays. It makes it kind of a harder thing."

Christmas will be different this year for these families, there's no doubt. Some are postponing their celebrations until the soldiers' scheduled return to Juneau in early February, while others are trying their best to maintain the traditions that makes the holiday important to them.

"We're trying to keep up with the season and all the traditions that we have," said Laura Gilbert, whose husband, Maj. Joel Gilbert, is stationed in Baghdad.

Gilbert said she is celebrating Christmas with their two children, Kayleigh, 10, and Angus, 9, and will have another celebration when the soldiers return.

"We're still going to open presents because we still believe in Jesus being the reason for Christmas," she said.

Sandy Demmert said her family is toning back Christmas a bit this year while her son, Spc. Paul Demmert, 22, is still overseas.

"We're going to celebrate Christmas with him when he gets home," she said. "But we'll make sure we spoil his baby for his first Christmas."

Paul Demmert was able to be home on leave for the birth of his son, Espeban, on June 10, but he is away from his child this holiday season to fulfill his duties.

"It's been tough, but we know he's doing OK over there because he keeps in contact with us and we know he will be home shortly," Sandy Demmert said.

Wright, 19, who is also a member of the Alaska Army National Guard, said this holiday season has been much different, especially because he feels he should be over there in the place of his father.

"It's definitely not going to be the same," he said. "I guess I've not had the same feel of Christmas with everything going on. I haven't been as much in the spirit as I usually am. It's tough."

Gilbert, who is a coordinator for the Guard's Family Assistance Center, said there have been many tears over the course of the year. She said this year also has given her family a greater appreciation of life.

"It's just made us realize that every day we have a roof over our heads, we have food on the table and we have plenty of clothes in the closet," Gilbert said.

If she could turn back the clock, Gilbert said she would not change the sacrifices her family has made over the course of the year.

"If I would have been the one to make the decision for him to be the one to stay or go, I would definitely have had him go," she said.

Wright said he would be over there if he was asked.

"I feel thankful, obviously, and I feel spoiled in a way just for the fact that being in the service it's part of my fight, and I'm here and they're there," he said. "They're over there, you know, doing me a huge favor as well as everyone else in the United States."

Gilbert said the community of Juneau has gone above and beyond to help the families make it through the holiday season without their loved ones.

"So many businesses and organizations have called me up and given all sorts of support," she said. "From care-package drives to donating Christmas trees, it's pretty amazing how much they've come through for the families and the soldiers."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at

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