The holiday season typically conjures images of spending time with close friends and family, sharing meals and exchanging gifts.
But for several local military veterans, their memories of holidays past are often quite different – especially those deployed overseas during the season. For those who serve, they said, duty comes first, regardless of what’s going on in the outside world.
Foothill College student Nick Intersimone distinctly remembers spending one Christmas Day in an unusual place – a submarine. A 29-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, Intersimone said he spent three of his four years in the Navy stationed aboard the USS Houston in Guam during the holidays. One of those years, they conducted sea trials – a testing exercise for military watercraft – Dec. 25.
Thinking about the fact that it was Christmas, he said, was the last thing he wanted to do.
“It’s stand watch, do maintenance and sleep,” Intersimone said of spending Christmas Day aboard a submarine. “You try not to think about it. Occasionally, the (recreation) committee might try to decorate the mess deck or something. But really, you don’t want to be reminded of the fact that you’re at sea. You just don’t want to think about the fact that there’s life still going on while you’re in the monotony.”
The same held true for U.S. Army veteran Brennon Shepherd. Now a 26-year-old Foothill College student, Shepherd recalled spending Christmas Day 2007 in a volatile region – patrolling the streets of Baghdad.
Like Intersimone, Shepherd said his main focus that day was simply performing the job at hand. Menus posted on the mess-hall board, which promised unusually tasty hot meals, were generally the only indicator that it was a special holiday.
“The days bleed into each other over there,” said Shepherd, who remembers wolfing down a quick plate of steak and lobster tail before heading back out on patrol. “You forget what day of the week it is, you start losing track of dates. You just know what the next day entails.”
Instead of serving overseas this year, both veterans will be home spending this holiday with their families. For Intersimone, 2012 will mark his first holiday season since fulfilling his service to the Navy.
“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” he said of his holiday plans, “but it’s going to be nice to get to spend the holidays with my family. I’ll actually get to see people and be with them during the holidays for once.”
For those whose loved ones are serving their country overseas, the holiday season can be a challenging time. Cathy Rainwater-Crowder knows that all too well.
Rainwater-Crowder is president of the South Bay Blue Star Moms, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to soldiers deployed throughout the world.
The mother of two U.S. Marines, Rainwater-Crowder said her chapter is a close-knit group of parents who support each other through good and bad times – much like a family. That includes during the holiday season, which can be an especially lonely time for parents with children in the military.
“There’s that empty chair at the table,” said Rainwater-Crowder, noting that her 23-year-old son, Kirk, is currently serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. “Last year, my oldest son, (25-year-old Marine Corps veteran) James, was gone for Thanksgiving. Kirk was also not home. ... I always have an empty chair, but I’ve had empty chairs for the last several years.”
This season will be different, Rainwater-Crowder noted. For the first time in many years, she said, her sons will be home together for at least a portion of the holidays. Still, she knows many other parents will face a tougher holiday season.
“It’s incredible, exciting and less painful,” Rainwater-Crowder said of having Kirk and James home for the holidays. “On the other hand, we have moms within our group whose sons have just deployed. They’re not going to be home. And so, as a group, we have to make sure we’re supporting our moms and (that) they know that we’re there for them.”
Local groups provide gestures of good will and welcome to returning veterans as well this holiday season.
Paul Schutz is one of several Los Altos Rotarians committed to making returning to school a little easier for military veterans at Foothill College. This year, the Rotary Club of Los Altos’ Red Badge Committee is raising funds to purchase Livescribe Smartpens, a learning tool that can record class lectures and written notes. The Rotarians will distribute the pens through the Foothill College Veterans Resource Center, which will loan them to student veterans like Intersimone and Shepherd.
Schutz, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War, admitted that upon his discharge, he spent time “floundering around” before adjusting to civilian life and choosing a career path. It’s something he hopes the current generation of returning veterans can avoid.
“There’s this juxtaposition between two extremes,” he said, noting that veterans returning from combat theaters often experience a sense of culture shock. “(Being back home) doesn’t fit the picture of where they were and what they were up to.”
Rainwater-Crowder’s local chapter is scheduled Dec. 15 to mail 600-700 packages filled with basic items such as toiletries, magazines, books and other items to Americans deployed abroad, including many with Bay Area ties. When asked if she had a message to remind others of the sacrifices local veterans have made for their country, Rainwater-Crowder had a simple response – just thank them.
“We don’t get to have the tree, the turkey and the ham without their protecting our freedom,” she said. “We always have to remember that. I just hope that everybody can remember that they do a lot for us.”