Skyping around the Christmas tree: Guard families stick close to loved ones

December 23, 2011 9:17:00 PM

Nerissa Young -


Maybe he didn't put on the lights, but he watched and supervised from afar. 


Really far. A U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. 


Matt Thompson joined his fiancée and their children via Skype to decorate the family Christmas tree. Thompson is deployed with the Mississippi National Guard's 223rd Engineer Battalion based in West Point. 


"The most awesome thing invented, though, is Skype," said Liz Bryan, Thompson's fiancée and partner of four years. Skype is a video phone connection via computer. 


Between them, they have five children, his three from a previous marriage and her two. Thompson's children live with their mother but visit every other weekend. He has a 17-year-old son and 15- and 8-year-old daughters. Bryan has two sons, ages 8 and 10. 


"We're very lucky that we have Skype," she said Thursday by phone. Being able to see Thompson, not just talk to him, is important for her and the children. "It's not the same, but it helps us cope better." 


The Family Readiness Group at the West Point armory has also helped the family cope, she said. The family members who meet once a month encourage one another because they really do understand how spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends feel with their loves ones abroad. 


"It's like another extension of the family," she said. 


Sgt. Michael Stevens didn't help his wife put up the tree, but he will likely help take it down. That's because Sarah Stevens is leaving it up until he gets home for a two-week leave. 


The couple will have been married three years in April. "He got deployed to Iraq five days after we married," Sarah said. 


He finished that tour, spent a little time with her and then left in October for Kandahar. 


His family is smaller than hers, she said, so his family will celebrate Christmas at their home when Michael returns. 


Her family is breaking tradition and going on its first Christmas vacation. Instead of to her parents' home, all will be traveling to Gatlinburg, Tenn., for family time. She is looking forward to getting into the mountains. 


She, too, credited the West Point family group for providing a support system while Michael is away. 


Pfc. Kevin Baroni put up his own tree at the base. Or at least he had the supplies to do so. 


Cortney Baroni sent her husband Christmas in a box with a miniature tree, ornaments and candy canes. She doesn't know whether he's using the decorations. 


"It made me feel better sending it," she said. 


She did not decorate their home. A student at Mississippi State University, Cortney left for her parents' home in Hernando after exams "rather than staying at home alone at my place." 


She did her baking and decorating once she got to Hernando. The couple has been married just six months, but they have known each other since ages 13 and 14. 


Cortney and Kevin talk often, sometimes every day.  


Staying busy and in a routine helps her get through the separation, she said. 


The person keeping it together for the rest of the families is Shanna McTaggart, chairwoman of the Family Readiness Group. 


The absence of children makes the absence of her husband, Sgt. Dustin McTaggart, easier to bear, she said. They married in March 2010 after being together for four years. 


As newlyweds, they established holiday traditions. Thanksgiving is at his family's house, and Christmas is at her family's. She went to Dustin's parents' home for Thanksgiving, and she'll be with her own this weekend. 


"It really does help to have a close-knit family," she said. Part of that family is the West Point group. "We lean on each other." 


Even though Shanna has no children, she helped the family group make provisions for the families who do. They gave away daddy dolls at the Christmas party. The rag dolls dressed in uniforms have blank faces, which lets children put their fathers' photos on the faces. That way, Shanna said, they can always have their fathers with them.