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Families use creativity to involve soldiers serving abroad

By ELESKA AUBESPIN | Florida Today

When Cindy Earp gathers relatives around the dining room table for the holidays this year, the family will enjoy a traditional meal.

But her son, Army Pfc. Joseph Giacobbe IV, 29, won’t be there. At least not in person. Giacobbe, of Fort Campbell, Ky., is serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He’s been overseas since May 26, 2003, as part of the United States’ war on terrorism.

The absence of family members serving in the military will be felt by the relatives, friends and neighbors of about 130,000 American troops serving in Iraq this season, in addition to others stationed in friendly and not-so-friendly spots around the globe.

Still, Giacobbe's parents will make certain he is at the annual gathering of his family in spirit. Earp and her husband, Jim, of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., are including their military son in plans as a show of love despite long distance and circumstances.

“We plan to put a framed photo of him on top of the coffee table so he’ll be a part of the celebration,” says Earp. “I’ll also put out scrapbooks and a photo album with pictures that he has taken since the first day he arrived there.

“He’ll be the topic of the day.”

Like Earp, many families will be touched this holiday season by the absences of children, mothers, fathers, siblings and friends who are serving in the military.

Yet, instead of lamenting over absences, many families are choosing to do something about it. They plan to reach for telephones, computer e-mails, video and digital cameras, and that old favorite, pen and paper.

They’ve sent Thanksgiving packages — and will send Christmas ones — full of goodies and gifts and they’re snapping photos to capture the holidays, a real treat for troops serving overseas.

It’s a way to let everyone — back home and abroad — feel connected.

“For Christmas, I’ll make a video of the family and have a photo taken with Santa and the kids,” says Denise Hargis, 33.

Hargis’ husband, Specialist Duane Hargis, 37, serves with the Florida National Guard, 1st Battalion 124th Infantry. Hargis’ unit, about 85 soldiers, deployed Feb. 16 and is not expected to return home until March.

The couple have two children, Stephanie, 13, and Justin, 10, who are looking forward to a possible phone call from their dad on Christmas Day. He’s also mailing a box of gifts back home in Florida.

“Having contact with him and just knowing that we are thinking about the same thing at the same time will make the holidays better,” Hargis says.

Saying a big prayer on Thanksgiving and Christmas is how Jennifer Hernandez, 22, will include her husband, Julian Hernandez, in family gatherings.

Specialist Hernandez, 23, also serves with the National Guard, 1st Battalion 124th Infantry and has been gone from his family since January.

For Thanksgiving, the family was reuniting in Georgia to spend time with family, and planned a moment of silence to "pray for him during dinner,” Hernandez says.

For Christmas, Hernandez and the couple’s 4-month-old son, Isaiah, will head to her in-law’s home in Palm Bay, Fla., to celebrate.

“His mom has a video camera and has been videotaping family activities that we will try to put on a DVD,” Hernandez says. “We want to send that to him on Christmas Day.”

For more immediate communication, military families at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Fla., can use video teleconferencing equipment, says Capt. Susan Romano, chief of media relations for the 45th Space Wing Public Affairs Office at Patrick Air Force Base.

“We have several portable units that people can sign out and take home, and we also have a (video teleconferencing) facility at our family support center on the base,” Romano says.

Also, there are programs for troop support where the local community donates phone cards so families and troops can communicate.

The two biggest morale boosters are the phone cards and e-mail, Romano says.

“But there are tons of ways to be creative during the holidays,” she adds.

“For example, one family had their kids sit down and make a list at Thanksgiving about what they were thankful for and e-mailed it to the troops.

“And at the top of one of the lists, the son said he was grateful to be an American.”

On the Web:

For families and friends seeking to acknowledge men and women serving in the military this holiday season, consult the following Web sites:

USO: At www.uso.org, information is available on how people (even those without family serving in the military) can get involved in the organization's Operation Care Package effort to send greetings and gifts to troops serving overseas.

U.S. Post office: At usps.com/global/deliveryoptions.htm, consumers can find mailing options, deadlines and information for packages, cards and letters to troops serving overseas.