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Families, local airmen deal with separation at the holidays

Nancy J. Webb remembers Christmas Day a year ago didn’t go well at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

The sprawling base was subject to rocket attacks, one of many that happened before and after that day.

This was a holiday, but no break from a reminder where she and her fellow troops were at in wartime.

“Really it’s ‘Here we go again and I hope nobody gets hurt,’” said Webb, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force. “You know where you are, you know the possibility and the threat that’s in a location like that. Not the first time we had it; certainly not the last.”

Webb, who returned to the Miami Valley from her latest deployment, is the superintendent of the command center at Air Force Materiel Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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Like hundreds of thousands of service members, she has spent the holidays apart from her immediate family numerous times, often so other airmen can go home. She has deployed 10 times, serving in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe, from Japan to Germany.

Last year, more than 190,000 service members were deployed overseas, according to the Pew Research Center analysis of Pentagon data. Thousands served in combat zones in places like Afghanistan and Syria.

Just six weeks before Christmas last year, a suicidal attacker detonated an explosive vest at Bagram, she said, and troops were still recovering from the shock. The attack killed four Americans and injured 16 U.S. service members and a Polish soldier while the group was preparing for a run, CNN reported.

“I was about 250 yards away from it in my quarters, and it about knocked me out of my bed when it happened,” Webb said.

It was the potential for danger, or the unknown, that worried her family.

“We know she’s going to be OK, but the unknown is a big if, especially in a war zone,” said Matthew Webb, 39, and the brother of Nancy. “It doesn’t get any easier over time, but I guess you get accustomed to it.”

Nancy Webb said it’s hardest on her elderly parents.

“Mom and dad, they probably take it harder than I do,” she said. “The older they get, it’s also more difficult being apart.”

“There’s a lot of tears shed,” she added. “The most difficult part for my parents was when they saw stuff in the news and sometimes it was very difficult to get a message out when something would happen. So there was a lot of uncertainty on their end of was I OK.”

Treating the wounded

Maj. Melissa Seacat, 48, is an Air Force reservist and flight nurse with the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson on a deployment to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, flying missions to Afghanistan to bring home wounded troops.

“We all know that sometimes being separated from our family can be difficult, and I think we work well to combat that,” she said in a telephone interview on her second four-month tour of duty overseas.

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As a nurse, she’s accustomed to working holidays, she said.

“Working holidays while deployed is not that much different. There are people who are sick and injured who need help, and that’s what we do,” she said in an email. “Our families see our dedication to patients at home, which gives them an understanding of it while deployed.”

She and her husband Bradley Seacat, 51, stay in touch through the internet.

“We’re lucky enough nowadays that we’re able to Skype and still talk to each other face to face every day if we wish too,” he said. “It’s a whole lot different than it was say 30 years ago when all you could do is write letters back and forth. … It just makes things a lot easier to see your spouse, to see if your loved one is alright.”

Still, he doesn’t like to dwell on the risk she may face on aeromedical evacuation missions to Afghanistan.

“I told her don’t tell me when you go on a mission because I really don’t want to have to worry like that,” he said. “You can tell me when you get back.”

The couple have two grown children, which makes separation over the holidays easier, they said.

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An extended family

Seacat and Webb have reached out to fellow airmen to get through family separation at the holidays.

“You still have the togetherness of a quote unquote family,” Seacat said. “It’s just a little bit different type of family … You have your crew that you work with and you fly with every day, and they become like family.”

Watching out for the welfare of other airmen has helped Webb.

“Helping them get through helped me get through as well,” she said. “I could focus more on them instead of feeling my own pain.

“I’ve made a lot of friends that are still in the military, or are now out of the military, and when I felt down or lonely or what have you, I reached out to them, and they were able to put some good thoughts in my head,” she added.

Reliably, Webb’s mother sent a piece of home to her daughter, continuing a decades-long Christmas tradition. Webb, who is single, has been in uniform for 25 years.

“It’s quite lonely to begin with, but one thing that helped me over Christmas, particularly almost every year since I’ve been in the Air Force, my mother has mailed me my (Christmas) stocking, and she handmade it when I was born.

“She sent it to me in Afghanistan,” added Webb, 46. “It was very sentimental and I was not comfortable putting it back in the mail, so when I came back … I hand carried it back to Texas with me.”

She said she hasn’t been home to Texas on Christmas Day since at least the 1990s.

“You wish they were there,” Matthew Webb said. “You miss them. She’s always been a part of us even when she’s not there.”

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Care packages raised the spirits of Seacat and her comrades last week. A church in Delaware shipped letters and Christmas stockings filled with holiday items from a Girl Scouts troop and a Veterans of Foreign Wars post to the unit in Germany.

In Afghanistan, Nancy Webb and her compatriots celebrated Christmas in July to boost morale.

“We did Christmas carols and we wore hats and put up lights,” she said. “Even though it wasn’t Christmas time, we still had the camaraderie and the fun that the holidays can bring.”

Webb helped arranged a telephone call between then President Barack Obama and a young airman on Thanksgiving Day in Afghanistan.

“A little pat on the back like that can go a huge distance,” Webb said.

She also has her own way to handle deployments.

“Pack light, be flexible and stay busy,” she said. “If you find yourself sitting around just thinking about how you hate the place, how terrible it is, and how hot or dirty or whatever the case maybe, it just gets wore and worse and worse.”

“You don’t just sit on your bed and think how bad it is,” she added. “You stay busy.”

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