Christmas is traditionally a joyous time when friends and family come together to celebrate and reflect on the year past. But for U.S. military overseas, the holidays can often be difficult for both the soldiers and their loved ones.

Maine National Guard troops of the 133rd engineering battalion are now safely back home and able to spend the holidays with their families after being engaged in Iraq last year.

Mary Reutlinger

Life has gone back to normal, says Sgt. Mary Reutlinger who returned to Windham in February after a year stationed in Mosul, Iraq. As logistic supply sergeant, Reutlinger managed resources, like lumber and electrical equipment, to help rebuild Iraq after the US-led invasion.

Now home, she is back to raising her two teenage daughters and helping her husband Jeff put an addition on the house.

Reutlinger, who has been in the military for 20 years, says Internet communications, like e-mail and “instant messaging,” make keeping in touch far easier than it was during Operation Desert Storm.

“It makes the time away a lot easier,” Reutlinger said. “Nowadays, I don’t e-mail much, but over there it was our most precious link.”

While compensating for the eight-hour time difference, Reutlinger said she kept in contact with her families once or twice a day through the Internet. During her tour in Iraq, she was only able to make one phone call home.

Last year, she celebrated Christmas with the troops of her battalion. Thanks to family gifts and the generous contributions of Maine communities, the soldiers enjoyed care packages, presents and some even had small Christmas trees. Reutlinger also bought gifts for her daughters online and participate in a Christmas party back home via the Internet.

Shawn Arbour

Shawn Arbour, 32, of Standish, celebrated Christmas last year as intelligence analyst for the 133rd battalion.

“It’s always hard being away from family,” said Arbour, a veteran of 10 years. “The nice thing is that, with everyone being in the same situation, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

This year, he will spend the holidays at his new home in Standish with his wife, Melissa, and 9-year-old son, Tim. This will be his first Christmas in the new house with his new wife. The couple got married at Fort Drum, New York just before he was deployed. This Christmas, they have invited both sets of relatives to celebrate with them.

While in Iraq, he e-mailed his wife frequently and phoned home once a week. This is much different than back in 1997 when, while engaged in Bosnia, he had to “wait out the week” to keep in touch.

While he is looking forward to Christmas with his family, Arbour’s mind is still with the troops.

“I can’t help but think about everybody that’s over there,” Arbour said. “But you have to be with family and pretty soon all those guys will be home soon too.”

Bill Ross

Chief Master Sgt. Bill Ross, postmaster for Casco Post Office, was a member of the 265th combat communications division of the Maine Air National Guard that deployed to Kuwait to establish communications before the war.

In addition to creating communications for combat operations, he set up a computer network of the soldiers in Kuwait to keep in contact with loved ones in the United States. In the beginning of the war, soldiers had to be careful what information they passed along the digital wire. At that time, the military was gearing up for the war and prepared for a chemical attack at any time.

“Since the first Gulf war, the biggest fear was the fear of the unknown,” Ross said. “We didn’t know what they had for weapons of mass destruction.”

As a communications sergeant, Ross had the luxury of keeping contact through Web cameras and ready access to telephone. One of the hardest things for Ross was missing his youngest daughter’s graduation, though he did get to see the pictures online.

He is also thankful for the care packages and gifts from the community sent to him while in Iraq. Especially baby wipes because of the dry desert heat and “showers few and far between.”

One organization that aims to keep soldiers connected to their families is Operation Homelink. They are responsible for distributing hundreds of Internet-ready computers, donated by corporations, to military families with loved ones about to deploy.

“It’s an all-volunteer non-profit,” said Dan Shannon, founder and president of Operation Homelink. “The single purpose is to give something back to the people in uniform.”

Thanks to the Internet age, soldiers are able to keep in touch with families members once a day opposed to once a month, Shannon said.

John LeProhon

E-mail is how Donna Lovely, Raymond’s Tax Collector, and her son John LeProhon kept in touch over the holidays last Christmas.

“He e-mailed me whenever he got a chance, which was every couple of weeks or so,” Lovely said.

The regular contact while John was overseas with the U.S. Army helped alleviate her fears, she said, and gave her son a sense of connection to home.

“For them, I think it’s mainly a want of normalcy,” Lovely said. “And when you’re in a situation like that it’s very difficult to achieve.”

Both her husband, Richard, and ex-husband, John, were in the military and missing holidays and birthdays is something you take with a grain of salt, she said.

“The holidays are the toughest times for the military families, but you kind of accept it as part of the job,” Lovely said.

Currently, John is stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington. Though he can’t be home for Christmas, Lovely is glad to have her son back in the country and prays for all the other mothers who have children in Iraq, and for those soldiers return home safely.

Sgt. Mary Reutlinger stands with her mother Katherine, left, and daughters Kassie, Morgan and husband Jeff. Reutlinger will spend Christmas with her family in Windham this year after being stationed in Iraq last December.

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