Technology reunites war-torn families for holidays
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Wendy Derkits stood in front of the camera to deliver a holiday message thousands of miles away.
She wanted to tell her husband at war that she loved him and wish him a Merry Christmas, but with the camera running and people watching, her words were replaced by tears.
Hours later, she sat in her living room trying to figure out how to tell her Marine husband what she wanted him to hear.
So she set up her own video camera and just started to talk, telling him everything a wife tells a husband: about their children, the family, their Christmas plans. She showed him the house, the tree and the decorations.
"It was an hour of nothingness. But it was me, normal. Me, everyday. He doesn't need to remember me sad and crying. That's not what he needs. He needs regular me," said Derkits, 24, of Oceanside, Calif.
For some Marines and soldiers, this is their first Christmas away from family. For others, it is a second, third or fourth missed holiday season -- a reality of a country at war.
But unlike wars past, many deployed military personnel will have an opportunity to connect with loved ones: From sending Christmas wishes in a video message to participating in a two-way videoconference or using a Web cam.
"Twenty years ago, you sent a letter," said Navy Chaplain William Kennedy, who counsels Marines, sailors and family members about overcoming the lost holidays together.
"Now it's instant messaging and three e-mails a day. That's the norm," he said. "You can be in contact with your family nearly every day. Not too long ago that was just unheard of."
Just a few years ago, e-mail and digital photographs united families with their deployed loved ones in combat zones. Today, live video and audio feeds have made it possible to help those deployed keep up with family events and celebrations.
This is the fifth deployment -- the second at Christmas -- that Dina Gutierrez, 37, and her two sons have been without the boys' father during the holidays. The first Christmas, she and her husband used Web cams to talk about gifts for their two sons, now 2 and 4. This time, though, she has had to rely on recorded video messages because her husband is at sea with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
"It's like a lifeline for him more than us," said Gutierrez of Marco Island, Fla. "Just being able to see the boys is good for him."
Marine Master Sgt. Otto "Willie" Ellerbrock, 44, was preparing to go back to Iraq again after Christmas. The timing means that next year he will spend his second Christmas there in three years.
"These are years that I will never get back," he said.
For this Christmas, Ellerbrock was buying a computer with video and Web cam capabilities so he doesn't miss those big moments in the lives of his three children, ages 6, 4 and 3.
"I love to see my kids wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning and see their presents. As a father, it hurts not being able to do that. But I also understand that's what I signed up for," said Ellerbrock, of Valencia, Calif.
While the instant communication can bring families together, its fleeting nature can also make it harder on them.
"Sometimes it's hard when you get that 15 to 20 minutes of seeing the family and you have 6 or 7 months left on your deployment," Kennedy said. "There's a little bit of letdown afterward."
It's a feeling Amanda Doyle knows well. Married for two years, this is her husband's first deployment at Christmas.
Standing in front of a video camera, Doyle cried.
"I started talking to him, and then I just started to look at the camera and I couldn't think of anything else to say," she said. "It's like when you're on the phone and you know you're at the end of the conversation and you still don't want to hang up."
In an e-mail from his ship, Staff Sgt. David Derkits said access to e-mail and phone services allow him to keep a sort of daily conversation going with his family. And for those times when he can't get in contact, he has prerecorded audio and video messages for his children.
But he said those don't replace being there for those moments he has missed, such as birthdays, school events and, of course, Christmas.
"The inability to be there for them can never be replaced by an e-mail or phone call," he said.
A few days ago, Wendy Derkits chatted live with her husband through a one-way Web cam -- she saw him but they could only typed messages back and forth about their first holiday apart.
"I find myself stopping and breaking down when I hear his favorite Christmas carol or something the little one is doing that he would just love," she said. "I have to remember that it's his turn. If it wasn't him, somebody's else husband and father would be there."