Apart for the holidays

Military families making Christmas work from miles away

Courtesy The State Journal http://state-journal.com/

Story by Kevin Wheatley

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Amber Lynn, seen here with her 4-year-old daughter, Kamille, will spend Christmas without her husband, Austin, who is deployed to Kuwait with the Kentucky National Guard. The family relies on Skype to stay in touch. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Christmas is a time most spend with family and friends, but sharing the holiday can be difficult when loved ones in the military are on foreign soil thousands of miles from home.

Some in the Kentucky National Guard’s 2nd Battalion 238th Aviation Medical Evacuation unit have been in Kuwait since July, participating in a 9-month tour of evacuation and training missions.

Two of those deployed soldiers, Sgt. First Class Nathan Keach and Sgt. Austin Lynn, left behind wives and children at opposite ends of the spectrum: Keach, a veteran of the Gulf War, and his family are accustomed to being apart during the holidays; Lynn is missing his first Christmas with his wife and children, not to mention his one-year wedding anniversary.

Amber Lynn talks about her experience adjusting after the deployment of her husband, Austin. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

Amber Lynn talks about her experience adjusting after the deployment of her husband, Austin. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

Amber Lynn, Austin Lynn’s wife, said she’s had to adjust. Her husband hasn’t been there to help with things such as decorating the house, assembling Christmas toys for her son and daughter and storing patio furniture when fall turned to winter.His commander, Col. Brian Abney, came over during his lunch break one recent day to help Lynn set up her daughter’s Christmas present, a pink Barbie convertible.

“He misses a lot being gone,” Lynn said. “We had our first Christmas together being married because we got married a week before Christmas, but this is like our big first Christmas really together with the kids and all the family and all that stuff, and him being gone, it kind of sucks.”

Lynn, who works in the emergency room at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center and is studying for a paramedic board certification, does her part to keep her husband involved — not only for the holidays, but also the family’s day-to-day happenings.

Andrew Keach, 13, milks one of his goats while doing evening chores at his family’s farm. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

Andrew Keach, 13, milks one of his goats while doing evening chores at his family’s farm. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

She plans to email him photos of the children opening their gifts Christmas morning and has sent him pictures of her 6-year-old son, Kannon, on his birthday and of her 4-year-old daughter, Kamille, at a school pageant.The two speak regularly on Skype, an online voice and video chat system. Lynn said the Skype application on her smartphone stays open so her husband can call at anytime, though it took him some time to get used to the eight-hour time difference.

Kamille had a difficult time adjusting to her stepfather’s deployment, Lynn said. His white truck sits in the family’s driveway, and she often asked his whereabouts when she saw it, Lynn said.

“She gets really upset at night, and she cries herself to sleep sometimes,” Lynn said. “If she’s sick or if she’s upset about something, normally she would have everything to do with me, but because he’s gone and he’s been gone so long now to her, she wants nothing to do with me and she just wants him.

“Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to call him on Skype or have to wake him up and she’ll have to talk to him so she’ll be able to go back to sleep.”

Andrew Keach, 13, pets the barn cat while taking a break from feeding the goats on his family's farm. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

Andrew Keach, 13, pets the barn cat while taking a break from feeding the goats on his family’s farm. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

The adjustment isn’t as stark for Amy Keach and her teenage sons, Matthew, 17, and Andrew, 13. This Christmas marks her husband’s third deployment since 2009 after a 10-year career on active duty.Having two able-bodied sons helps ease the workload at the family’s nearly 7-acre farm on the Franklin-Shelby county line, where they raise goats, chickens, cows, horses and pigs.

“The kids are a big help when he’s gone,” Keach said. “I don’t know what I’ll do when they leave.”

The fact that Nathan Keach volunteered for the mission to help pay for the family’s “goat mobile” — a white Ford cargo van they use to haul dairy goats to the state fair, county fairs and goat shows — may dampen the pangs of separation, but Amy Keach still keeps a part of her husband near her heart: The dog tags he wore during basic training hang from a necklace she wears while he’s deployed.

“It just keeps him close to me, makes me remember,” Keach said.

She, too, communicates with her husband through Skype, a much better alternative to the hand-written letters they mailed back-and-forth during the Gulf War.

Amy Keach feeds a goat a peppermint after milking her. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

Amy Keach feeds a goat a peppermint after milking her. (Hannah Reel/hreel@state-journal.com)

The two families are prepared to celebrate Christmas, and the deployed soldiers have helped coordinate buying gifts for their children and stepchildren. The wives have already sent their Christmas gifts to the Middle East: baked goods and things to stay entertained for Nathan Keach, and razor cartridges, Xbox games and T-shirts for Austin Lynn.Both said the Kentucky National Guard’s family resource group offers a vital support network for those with loved ones overseas.During this deployment, the group has made neck pillows, ornaments and Christmas stockings for the troops. Amber Lynn began collecting coupons, eventually sending a load of soap, deodorant and other toiletries to the soldiers in Kuwait.

“For his colonel to come over and put together that Barbie car on his lunch break, that was awesome for him to do that because even though it’s got directions with it, I couldn’t tell you how to use a screwdriver to get the stuff in there,” Lynn said. “It would’ve ended up on backwards.”