Military families celebrate Christmas across the miles with a little help from technology

Tuesday, December 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) _ You'll get to celebrate Christmas twice this way _ once on the real Christmas and once when I return, Air Force Maj. Murf Clark tells his children to cheer them up.

While the family celebrates Christmas at home in North Dakota, Clark and hundreds of service men and women like him are spending the holidays on military assignment overseas.

It's the second Christmas separation for Clark and his wife, Andrea. She still remembers the Christmas Day phone call he made eight years ago from a tanker plane.

``He was flying off the coast of Africa and talking to me in rural Iowa,'' she said, remembering how odd the conversation seemed: ``I miss you, dear. OVER.''

Years ago, a phone call from overseas military staff was rare and letters meant a delay in the conversation and brushing over the smaller details of daily life. Today, military personnel have the occasional use of videophones and videotaped messages, and e-mail can be a daily staple.

Chief Warrant Officer Guy Gleason Sr., a Blackhawk helicopter pilot stationed at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, wished his wife and three children happy holidays over a video link to a Santa Fe, N.M., National Guard building.

``Daddy, when you get home, can we go to the park?'' asked 3-year-old Martha.

``Oh, yeah, honey, we'll go to the park,'' he responded with a nod and smile.

Tears began to fill Lara Fishburn's eyes as she and her two children sat down in front of a video camera and the video screen showing Capt. John Fishburn, also a Blackhawk pilot with the 717th Army Medical Company on a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

``This is the jacket you bought me for Christmas,'' Lara Fishburn said, smiling as she showed off the black leather jacket. ``We really miss you.''

In New York, about half of the National Guard members on domestic duty who have young children got a surprise Christmas order: Go home.

``The kids were overwhelmed,'' said Specialist Anthony Yonnoni, a father of three from New Windsor, N.Y., who has been busy securing U.S. tunnels and bridges for the past three months.

A group of U.S. soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, created their own Christmas celebration, holding a Christmas Eve candlelight service by singing carols and flying in an Army chaplain from a base in Uzbekistan.

A soldier named Kurt _ the army allowed those attending the service to be identified only by their first names _ said the separation from his wife, son and daughter was a small sacrifice for what the troops had been doing.

``To put the country at peace, I think I can sacrifice Christmas,'' he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Pat, a E-2C Hawkeye surveillance plane pilot, was thinking of his children back in Florida as he stood board the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea,

``While I'll be preparing for my next flight over Afghanistan my kids will be just waking up and opening their presents back home,'' he said.

Clark, a KC-135 pilot stationed at the Grand Forks Air Base, has been flying support for the air battle in Afghanistan since last month. He hopes to return by Jan. 17, his daughter Annika's first birthday.

``It will probably be another day at work for me,'' he said when asked about Christmas during a telephone interview from ``Base X,'' the Middle East location his 319th Air Refueling Wing is using.

He said he talked with his two older children, Arenne, 10, and John, 8, about why his mission is important.

``I always tell my oldest daughter that if it weren't hard, that would be something that I worry about,'' he said.

For its airmen and the family members left behind, the Grand Forks base provides emotional support as well as ``morale calls'' over military lines, videophones and e-mail to help the families stay connected.

Using e-mail, Clark has managed to stay involved in many of his family's day-to-day decisions.

``You get to share stories and daily news,'' he said. ``You just feel more of their daily lives, even though you're 10,000 miles away.''

Clark's Christmas presents were en route last week, wrapped in a knotted cloth bag so they could be inspected. The children's grandparents and other relatives also planned to visit them to spread more cheer during Christmas.

``We're a military family,'' Andrea Clark said. ``It's all of our jobs to do this. We're going to make this sacrifice because it's worth making.''