Holidays can be difficult for service members and families — for a variety of reasons — especially during deployments. Many individuals and groups, however, find ways to make things a little brighter for those in the military community. Service members and family members themselves often take part in these efforts in local areas where they find themselves planted.
Military families also know that sometimes the best way to bring back the holiday spirit is to give to others. One sure-fire way is bringing gifts to children, whether it’s at holiday gatherings, “adopting” a family, or air-dropping packages to islands in the Pacific. Often, local military chaplains are involved in getting toys and food to military families in need during this season. Many in the military community are involved in the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation’s annual toy drive.
A number of organizations have programs for troops and military families throughout the year. These are just a few examples of what’s been happening.
Troops around the world still enjoy holiday meals
For those deployed to Northern Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Defense Logistics Agency has sent at least 940 whole turkeys, 7,520 pounds of roast turkey, 16,435 pounds of beef, 9,738 pounds of ham, 228 pounds of shrimp, 161 cans of sweet potatoes and 11,539 pies and cakes.
For those deployed to Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, 947 whole turkeys, 13,632 pounds of roast turkey, 27,602 pounds of beef, 7,401 pounds of ham, 8,467 pounds of shrimp, 1,110 cans of sweet potatoes, 14,253 cakes and pies, and 3,744 containers of eggnog were delivered to the region, officials said.
Planning for the worldwide holiday feeding of troops begins months in advance at the Defense Logistics Agency. At publication time, agency officials were still finalizing their numbers for the Christmas food poundage sent worldwide.
Troops and families all over the world participate in events in their communities
On Dec. 12 in Powidz, Poland, soldiers with the 3rd Division Sustainment Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division made Christmas tree decorations with students during a holiday party at the Powidz school. They learned about local holiday customs, played games, and enjoyed some traditional holiday treats with the school children.
“Drops” of toys and other gifts have been happening around the world, too
In early December, six C-130 aircraft lifted off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in Operation Christmas Drop 2023, to deliver 210 parachuted bundles of donated items such as nonperishable food, toys, fishing supplies, schoolbooks and clothing to more than 42,000 islanders on 58 remote islands throughout Micronesia, covering about 1.8 million miles in six days. Pacific Air Forces, partner nations, and the University of Guam work together on the yearly event. Operation Christmas Drop’s first flight was in 1952, and it’s the Defense Department’s longest running humanitarian and disaster relief mission. Donations are collected on Guam and through the Operation Christmas Drop private organization.
Other toy missions have been happening with units based at installations such as Fort Liberty, North Carolina, and Fort Moore, Georgia.
Giveaways and charity events help provide enriching holiday experiences for service members and their families
More than 700 families of fallen military — to include 1,800 family members — spent five days the first week in December at Walt Disney World Resort, Florida, at a healing retreat. All their expenses are paid by the Gary Sinise Foundation, their partners and donations from the public. The families could participate in many workshops and activities, in addition to enjoying all four Walt Disney World theme parks. The Gary Sinise Foundation officially took over the Snowball Express program in 2017.
A number of efforts are focused on deployed service members too. More than 45,000 holiday stockings stuffed with various goodies were pledged this year in the nonprofit Soldiers’ Angels “Holiday Stockings for Heroes” campaign for deployed service members, hospitalized veterans, and National Guard and Reserve members around the country. In addition, through Soldiers’ Angels’ Adopt-A-Family program, donors adopted more than 2,000 military and veteran families and supported them with presents and grocery gift cards.
Operation Ride Home works with Jack Daniel’s partners with Armed Services YMCA to help active duty junior enlisted and their families travel home for the holidays. This year the program was slated to help more than 2,000 junior enlisted troops and family members make the trip home to see their loved ones. They provide subsidized plane tickets and prepaid gift cards for road travel to help offset expenses. Jack Daniel Distillery has donated $100,000 for this year’s trips, and the general public also donates. This marks the 13th year the distillery has offered the program.
Operation Homefront’s Holiday Toy Drive is designed to relieve financial stress for junior and mid-grade enlisted families, grades E1-E6. Toys and holiday meal kits are distributed at various events. Dollar Tree has helped collect toys in their stores for military children for 17 years; the program distributed about $6 million worth of toys to military families nationwide in 2022.
Armed Services YMCA also works to help financially strapped enlisted families with food and toys during the holidays and all year. Since 2004, through donations to Operation Holiday Joy, more than 320,000 toys and more than 25,000 baskets of food have been provided over Thanksgiving and Christmas for junior enlisted families in need. Many of their 12 branches around the country have participated in this program, and the events vary from branch to branch. Military parents can go in and “shop” for gifts for their children for the holidays.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.