A soldier's Christmas

By Ed Brock

Army Reserve Sgt. Mark Hale and his family in Jonesboro will celebrate Christmas the same way this year, but the feeling will be different, more precious.

Hale returned Thursday from training at Army Fort Stewart near Savannah, but after the New Year's holiday he and the other 3,000 members of the Army National Guard 48th Infantry Brigade will be heading out for a long deployment overseas.

Hale's 19-year-old daughter Lillian Hale said the family plans to do what they do every year for Christmas with as many loved ones as they can have over.

"In that sense it'll be normal," Lillian Hale said. "I think the mood may be different. It may be a more somber mood."

Hale's wife, Mary, said the family plans to go shopping together. But other than that, they won't stray to far from home.

"When you've got just a week, we want to spend much of it as a family," she said.

With the nation at war, some soldiers won't be able to spend the holidays at home.

Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Washington was passing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Wednesday on his way back to duty in Iraq after spending some leave-time at home in Philadelphia.

"We celebrated Christmas early," said 43-year-old Washington.

His children, ages 22, 17 and 10, were practical in their gift giving.

"My children mostly got me CDs, movie DVDs, things I can take back to entertain myself," Washington said.

It's not easy to leave them just before Christmas, Washington said, but his children are used to it.

"They understand because I've been in the military for a number of years," Washington said.

They especially understand the humanitarian side of what their father is doing, Washington said, when he tells them about the children over there and the things they don't have.

Like many others, Washington stopped in at the United Services Organization office near the airport's atrium for some snacks and gifts from Christmas Carol the Elf and other USO volunteers.

"She's been the chief. But they have all been very nice," Washington said.

Christmas Carol, aka Carol Austin, said she's been visiting the USO for some 20 Christmases. It helps that her birthday is on Christmas Eve.

"This is a great way to get into the spirit of the season," Austin said.

In the past week around 15,000 soldiers have come to the USO station, said Mary Lou Austin, president and director of the USO in Atlanta. They've been keeping the soldiers well stocked in Christmas goodies like phone cards, Chick-fil-A coupons and tickets to special events.

"They're very positive and they appreciate the support," Austin said.

Santa himself will come to visit on Christmas Day, Austin said, and the volunteers will provide a full dinner to the soldiers who haven't made it home for Christmas yet.