SARATOGA SPRINGS – Few understand how precious it is to be home for the holidays as well as our men and women in service. We caught up with a couple of sailors this week at the U.S. Navel Support Unit in Saratoga Springs to get a picture of holiday life in service.
Command Senior Chief Jeff Simpson reported to the U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Saratoga Springs in August this year, and Lieutenant T.J. Mulqueen reported as an executive officer in May. Neither is spending Christmas at home, but Simpson feels fortunate that his family has joined him in Saratoga Springs for his three-year term of service here.
“Whenever you transfer, if you have family they can travel with you, on where you are going,” said Simpson. “We live in town, my wife, Stephanie, and I and our two boys, Nixon (9), and Kaleb (8). Home for us is in Tiffin, OH, and last year the boys got us up around 5 in the morning. It’s just a joy watching their faces as they open up everything; I love it to death. The look on their faces when the wrapping paper comes off – that’s the good stuff. Oh, and whoever’s handing out the presents has to wear the Santa hat. That’s a big deal in our household.”
For Mulqueen, home is miles away in the mountains of Alpine, Arizona, where his parents and brother are.
“The Navy does try to make an effort to provide time for family, especially when you are on shore,” said Mulqueen. “My sister lives in Massachusetts and if flying out there, and on Christmas Day we’re going to Skype together. I sent the presents ahead of time so they can have them in time.”
Mulqueen recently served on the U.S.S. Alabama out of Bangor, Washington, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.
“We decorate, put a little Christmas tree in the wardroom, but you still have a mission to do,” he said. “I remember taking an engineering exam on Christmas day. There’s holiday spirit and everything, but everyone understands that there is a job to do.”
“I was stationed in Iraq on an oil platform along with 35 other guys,” remembered Simpson. “We had this Christmas dinner together, and I was able to Skype with my wife who was home in Ohio and watch the kids open their presents and stuff.”
He said it was tough out on that oil platform together because the men would watch the Skype or listen on the phone, and then it’s over. The loved ones are gone with the closing of the screen and the hanging up of the receiver.
“Grown men, these big tough men, are going to cry,” said Simpson. That’s okay because you’re a human being. I find the best way to deal with not being home for the holidays is to not make it about yourself – it’s about the guy next to you. If a guy’s upset, you put your arm around him and give him some encouraging words, and then you flip that switch and go back to the job that you are there for, keep your mind active. You realize that when you are on a ship away for the holidays it’s bigger than you. It’s 350 souls bigger than you, at least on our cruiser it was.”
Both men have grateful words for all the schools and other organizations that remember the military during the holidays with care packages.
“Ships come out and are able to drop stuff off, things like DVDs, snacks, and magazines,” said Mulqueen. “When you’re going away, you get sports and news but you don’t know what movies are coming out, so these packages keep you in touch with the shore.”
“I remember the best thing I ever got was a box of honeybuns from my mother-in-law,” said Simpson. “They are the greatest things in the history of man.”
Simpson added, “A lot of times a handwritten note – it does mean a lot. People think it’s cheesy or cliché if you will – but it means a lot to the men. We got a stack of letters from this school in Tennessee with pictures they drew for us. We always hang them on the wall. Stuff like that means a lot to the guys. It’s a reminder that there is a good news story out there. The kids put so much heart and effort into it.”
When asked what he misses most about not being home, Mulqueen said, “My dad’s Irish. He would make this heavy, dense – like it was made of lead – fruitcake. We didn’t have the heart to tell him we didn’t like it, so he’d keep making it every year. And I miss the black and white pudding, sausage, breakfast beans, toast and eggs Mom made.”
Simpson said he could talk about the people he serves with forever. “You’d be hard pressed to find more resilient people – in my 20 years of service, I couldn’t be more proud to serve with them. But I am glad to be with my family this Christmas.”
“Being home for the holidays is one of those things that, especially as a military member right before you join, you don’t realize how important it is,” said Lieutenant T.J. Mulqueen. “Even after I separate from service, I will still have that appreciation for it. You don’t forget what it’s like to not be home.”