I wish you a wonderful holiday season, filled with gratitude for all you have and the things and people you love. During this holiday season, have you considered the many people celebrating in a foreign country without their loved ones? And those loved ones who are here without their spouses, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other relatives? Yes, there are many people in the military who are celebrating this holiday season without their loved ones because of a commitment they made to serve their country.

We owe much to our military members, even though you may think you get no direct benefit. Military members are sworn to protect and serve. If you were between them and their enemy, they would rescue and defend you. They will never ask for your thanks. Most military people I know feel quite self-conscious when thanked by civilians. They think, “I was just doing my job.”

This is true… they are doing their job, but they are doing a job less than one percent of the population signs up for. Afterall, how many of us are willing to place our lives on the line, relinquish our creature comforts and leave our loved ones, sometimes for a year at a time? How many would even pass the physical requirements? Military members miss birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, births and deaths, all to do what they were trained to do: their duty.

Do they love it? Some do, some could take it or leave it and others hate it. With the people I have spoken to, most hate it while they are there and then once they stateside, they long to return. It’s a weird, dichotomous existence.

I know there are some who never see combat. While you might think they are the fortunate ones, talk with them; you’ll find they suffer feelings of guilt and inadequacy because they were never on the front line. Those who did see combat are often in situations where their orders cause them to have conflicts of conscience. We in the field call it moral injury—and that’s not even to mention Post Traumatic Stress. I’ve kept “disorder” off that phrase because in my opinion, it’s not a disorder to experience stress after a traumatizing event. When you consider the life of a soldier, trauma may be a daily experience; the stress can be enormous.

Sure, you might see videos military members put up on YouTube showing them being silly, having fun, or enjoying the local scene, but these are just videos designed to put family members at ease. Often it can have the opposite effect, with family members believing their military member is having too much fun while they are left behind to hold down the fort, causing conflict in their primary relationships.

I’ve known soldiers who have lost their marriages during their deployment. Some have come home to find their homes and their bank accounts completely empty, with no spouse in sight.

And even when things did go well, many soldiers need a period of reintegration. They leave their families and believe when they return, things will be exactly the same as when they left… but they rarely are. Spouses have become more independent. Sometimes they blame their military member for their stress while they were gone. Children have grown. Life events have come and gone. There are many reasons for military members to feel quite alone; civilian friends and family have no idea what they have been through.

This is particularly true for Guard and Reservists who are not connected to a base when they return. They are often expected to seamlessly slip back into jobs, families, friendships and communities as if they never left. This is much easier said than done. The military member has had experiences he or she doesn’t want to share with civilians because they will never understand, and because they are trying to protect those they care about from the horror they experienced.

Military members in the field are not only dodging bullets, IEDs (incendiary explosive devices), snipers and children with deadly intent, they are also sleeping on the hoods of their Humvees and eating MREs (meals, ready-to-eat) that are barely edible and taking orders they often disagree with. I haven’t even mentioned the sexual assault many women in the military experience—occasionally men do as well.

It is Thank a Soldier Week… in the midst of your holiday festivities this week with your loved ones, take time to honor the sacrifices our military members make every day. When you prepare to eat your holiday feast, remember military members ripping open the bag of an MRE. When you are opening your presents, remember the soldiers anxiously awaiting mail call that may or may not come. When you go to bed at night, imagine sleeping in the desert atop the Humvee that transports you to your location.

My son, a twice-deployed soldier to Iraq, once told me military members give up their freedom so others can enjoy theirs. Rather than just saying thank you to a service member whose experiences you know little about, thank him or her and their families for their sacrifices and be especially appreciative for your experiences this holiday season.

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