Holidays often mean separation from family for military members

'We don't graduate from homesickness,' said Chris Cadeau, veteran and ASU student

Military in Santa hats

The holidays are upon us, and for many that means family gatherings, scrumptious meals, shopping extravaganzas and gift exchanges. The same does not hold true for some members of the military.

Service members on deployments and active duty often are separated from their loved ones, spending their holidays in a different culture with unfamiliar traditions, said Christopher Cadeau, a veteran and senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Cadeau authors “Veterans Voice,” a biweekly column for the Arizona Republic and hosts "Veterans Diaries" for KASC-The Blaze, ASU’s AM radio station. His message for the public this holiday season: “Just get out there and help someone. … As long as you’re helping someone, you’re on the right track.”

Man with beard and mustache

Christopher Cadeau

Question: Suicide rates for military/veterans are about much higher than the general population. One imagines the holidays could be tough for some people serving in the military?

Answer: The suicide rate for active-duty military and veterans compared to the general population is quite disturbing: 30 in 100,000 service members compared to 14 in 100,000 civilians, according to one study conducted in 2013. That number is said to have risen. As far as insight goes, I know nothing more than anyone else as to the concrete “why.”

Last year, just after Christmas, I lost a college friend, Gregg, to an overdose. Gregg was a patriot who suffered from the worst of what Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom had to offer. A year prior we worked through severe suicidal ideations. We’re finding that suicide requires a holistic treatment plan. … Because of this, things are going to continue to evolve slowly.

Q: Given that service members are often away on deployments or working on holidays, what’s that like for them and their families?

A: Being away from home during the holidays affects everyone differently. There’s no set prescribed amount of years or times deploying that make it any easier, either. I think that’s because we don’t graduate from homesickness. A death in the family back home while deployed is awful too. Some families are champions, though; they welcome the adversity.

What makes the holidays hard for me is the fact that I know exactly where everyone in my family is on certain days. This is my eleventh holiday away from home. Philosophically, I have thoughts about if I’m providing my daughter a meaningful upbringing because we are so far away from home holiday experiences. But we have a ton of support from friends here in Arizona that we enjoy too.

Q: Have you ever experienced a holiday overseas?

A: I didn’t have to spend a Christmas overseas: I always deployed for the summer holidays. We did have communication on most holidays, when the internet was up. On aircraft carriers, every unit that I was with, they tried to make it fun. They’d mass-produce steak and lobster for everyone. It was much a much-appreciated sentiment on an otherwise normal workday.

Honestly, it was the communication back home that was the most difficult. That’s when it was real. We can assimilate to our troops and coexist for months, but it all becomes vividly clear we’re not home once that communication starts or abruptly stops.

Q: What’s something the public can do for members of the military and veterans this holiday season?

A: Just get out there and help someone. Time has to be one of the largest misperceptions that I had coming into starting work at the Pat Tillman Veterans Center. I was an all-or-nothing guy, and I always thought that I didn’t have enough time to give. I forgot that I could create something that fit my schedule as well.

Twenty minutes a week is almost an hour and a half a month. It adds up. So instead of telling you where exactly you can go, I’ll just tell you that as long as you’re helping someone you’re on the right track. 

Top photo: Soldiers work together to unload Christmas trees at the Northwest Adventures Center at part of the "Trees for Troops" program on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense