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Home from War
Christmas has special meaning for one military family

By Nancy Schertzing
Photography by Jim Luning

If there’s no place like home for the holidays, no one would know that better than our U.S. troops who have been forward deployed or have served overseas. This Christmas, another year when service members will spend the holiday in harms way, one local family is preparing to celebrate a Christmas that was almost spent apart.
 
Standing out front of Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Capt. Kathleen Michel holds a picture taken during her Individual Augmentee (IA) deployment to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait where she spent six months as head nurse.

Nurse and Navy Capt. Kathleen Michel, 44, the mother of four children: Parker, 10, Griffin, 8, and 6-year-old twins, Ethan and Seth, found her own ways to cope with the uncertainty of a six-month military deployment.

“[The military] initially told me it would be for six months, then it was one year, then eight months, then back to six,” Kathleen remembers back home at Naval Hospital Jacksonville. Having missed Easter, her 16th wedding anniversary, and her twins’ sixth birthday, she can’t imagine what it would have been like to be gone for Christmas as well. “I think that would be really hard,” she says.

Originally from Ohio, Kathleen completed her college undergraduate and graduate nursing degrees at Ohio State University. She joined the Navy for the choice of duty stations near the water and the opportunity for adventure. Earlier this year, she received an assignment of “adventure” as she was called for Individual Augmentee (IA) duty to serve at the Expeditionary Medical Facility Kuwait, the only coalition forces military hospital in the small country, located just south of Iraq.

Camp Arifjan was Kathleen’s first tour in the Middle East and the new assignment took some adjustment. “When we first got there it was cold - in the 50s and 60s. It quickly got hot and was 120 to 130 degrees when we left,” Kathleen explains. “It was windy and sandy - like walking into a hairdryer with sand blowing out of it.”

As the head nurse for the tent-hospital facility, which included an emergency room, medical/surgical unit, a mental health ward and operating rooms, she also provided career support and guidance to 40 military nurses in Kuwait. Because her specialty is in neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nursing, Kathleen’s first exposure to a combat support hospital tested her wits and strengthened her faith.

“I have never seen trauma before and we saw a lot in the first month,” she recalls. “We had a week of three mass casualty days in a row. I saw a bunch of stuff I had never seen before, like amputations, burns . . .”

One difficult day, while looking for identification in an individual’s body armor belonging to a soldier who had died, she came across photographs and sticks of gum. “I started crying,” Kathleen says, “then thought, ‘I can’t do this as head nurse …I have to pull myself together. You can’t think of your emotions until it’s all over.’”

During the long days, Kathleen found time to attend Mass as much as possible, daily if she could get away from her work schedule of six 12-hour days. During Holy Week, she was able to attend Mass everyday, something she had never been able to do before.
 
Capt. Kathleen Michel and her husband, John, savor reading time with their four children: Parker, 10, Griffin, 8, Ethan and Seth, both 6. When she deployed to Kuwait in the spring, Michel wasn’t sure if she would be home for Christmas.

The chapel experience was different from her chapel back home, St. Edward at NAS Jacksonville, where she is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. While she was accustomed to saying the “Soldier’s Prayer” at Mass at the Florida chapel, in Kuwait it meant so much more after actually caring for people who had been in combat.

“We were immersed in it everyday. It was not just an idea - we got to see the effects [of combat] on a person’s mind, body and soul,” Kathleen says.

Sunday Mass at the Army base was full, she recalls. Being in a forward deployed environment “definitely strengthened” her faith life and she remembers, “I was praying a lot more than I normally do. You really realize that life is short and you have to make the most out of it.” Being away, she learned to appreciate her children and husband more and missed being there for them.

One of her biggest concerns was knowing if her young family would be okay without her. “I wouldn’t want them to spend a lot of time being sad. I didn’t want them to cry or become dysfunctional,” she admits. Luckily, Kathleen was able to communicate regularly with her children and husband, John, 41, who works for the State of Florida Veteran’s Affairs Department. A webcam, set up in her room, enabled her to see her family as she talked to them every day. They also mailed packages to each other.

John, who Kathleen calls ‘a saint’, was able to take time off during the summer months to care for and travel with the children. She could tell, however, that it was difficult for her husband to deal with things like the homework and dinner schedules alone. Although he is not Catholic, he took the children to religious education classes regularly and helped them with their nightly prayers, which still include a line to, “Please keep mommy safe.”

Kathleen returned home in August to resume her job as associate director for medical services at the Naval Hospital. She doesn’t anticipate being called back to the Middle East any time soon but is watching as others get ready to take their turn overseas, many of whom will be away for Christmas.

“We send nurses and other staff on deployment all the time from here,” Kathleen admits. “All you can do is stay in contact and celebrate when you get home.”

This year, after Christmas Mass, the Michel family will spend the day at their own home, an important tradition they have established for their mobile military family.

“I’m sure I’ll go overboard again this year with the decorations and presents …to celebrate that I am home and not deployed as was the initial plan,” she reflects.

 
Military Chaplains: Supporting our Troops and their Families

Catholic military chaplains wear many “uniforms.” They are spiritual leaders, counselors, companions, commanding officers and confidants.

“It’s service to God, our church and our nation,” Navy Cmdr. Michael Mikstay, chaplain of 15 years, says.

When St. Edward Chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville loses Father Mikstay, the current Command Chaplain, early next year, the base will lose its last active duty priest assigned to the 65-year-old air base. This is due to a shortage of military chaplains who are answering the call to serve the troops at home and those forward deployed.

Father Mikstay, who spent the first five-and-a-half years serving in various “hot-spots” around the world, such as Somalia and Liberia with the United States Marine Corps, is preparing to leave his administrative position on the home front to rejoin the Marines as a Catholic chaplain serving in Iraq.
 
Father Michael Mikstay

“I am there to be their priest,” says Father Mikstay, who was ordained for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio in 1981. “To travel around to places where …anybody has a need for a chaplain is what I look forward to. The real calling for me is to be operational and be with the Marine Corps.” Serving overseas, for him, is “another opportunity to provide the power of the priesthood in an operational setting.”

Overseas and during wartime, military chaplains help the men and women of the armed forces through many trying situations. “The type of ministry is much different,” Father Mikstay explains. “Our travel, supplies and services [are] done so we can take care of those people spread across the theater in which we operate.”

But chaplains are also a valuable informational tool for the active duty and families at home.

“We are faced with all sorts of issues when someone walks in our door,” Father Mikstay says. Financial difficulty is one of those issues. “Loan sharks charging astronomical [interest] percentages are commonplace outside many military bases. The military are going there because they are in financial need,” he says. But the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) is an organization that provides interest free loans to military personnel. They work closely with the service member or the family to create a budget and a plan to repay the loan.

The Fleet and Family Support Center, a government-funded organization found on almost all Navy installations, provides counselors who give advice about a number of topics such as finance, marriage, abuse, grief and others. “Especially beneficial for those who have a loved one deployed for the global war on terrorism are the family support groups which the center organizes and coordinates,” advises Father Mikstay.

“Very high on the list of priorities for the Navy and Marine Corps is to take care of the military families,” Father Mikstay claims. “In my experience, when I am in an operational area, say a foxhole or the desert, and I ask [a service member] his three biggest concerns, [he] will say ‘Take care of my family.’ As chaplains assigned to shore installations, we are called to support the fleet or the war-fighter, but we can do that best by taking care of their families.”

-Amelia Eudy

For information about the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society call (904) 542-3515 and for the Fleet and Family Support Center call (904) 542-2766.