The holidays are a chaotic time for everyone and many people wish to avoid them all together. After all, these times bring lucrative present requests, awkward conversations with family members, and long hours of travel.
Despite the mess, the holidays do bring people together. These dates help us to acknowledge our family and friends, regardless of the distance.
It is safe to say that our service men and women would embrace the chaotic nature of the holidays any day of the week to be in the presence of family and being overseas during the holiday season only increases their desire to come home.
Last holiday season, Kelsey F., Patricia F., Siobhan O., Stephanie P., and Amanda R., five members of the New England Patriots Cheerleader (NEPC) team went to the Middle East from Dec. 20-Jan 2. to support the troops.
"Our goal was to take the troop members minds off the reality of the situation. We just wanted to try to bring a little bit of home to the places we visited and make them smile," said Amanda.
Each individual had a different unique reason to volunteer for the trip, but Stephanie and Patricia had strong military connections which shifted the dilemma about going to an afterthought.
"My sister's boyfriend is in the military and he was at boot camp when I went over. I wanted to have that experience, so I could know what he will go through and witness, even if my experience won't be the same as his. It was something that I wanted to do," said Patricia. Added Stephanie, "One of my really close friends is in the military and I'm so proud of what he does. I felt I needed to go to support him and support others and to experience - just a little, what it is like."
The five cheerleaders, along with NEPC Director Tracy Sormanti, visited military bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Qatar. During the morale boost, NEPC participated in humanitarian assistance projects, handed out presents, took part in military activities, spent time at local schools, and performed shows for the troops. The performances, which consisted of dance routines, 12 days of Christmas, and covers by Stephanie, brought on the most emotions for the both NECP and the troops.
"At Camp Kondus, morale felt low. They had a mission the next day and they had the least [amenities] of the places we visited. We did the show and it just brought everyone to life. The staff sergeant asked everyone to leave [the rest area] and then he just started crying, saying 'how thankful he was and how he hasn't seen them smile like that in ages,' " said Stephanie.
The '12 days of Christmas' song generated the most laughs. Siobhan recalls the sing-a-long as her favorite memory of the trip.
"We invited 11 troop members on stage and we mixed up the lyrics so the troops could come up with their own desires. The first four people to sing didn't know the song or the words, we kept whispering them the words, but it didn't matter because everyone was having fun and laughing. By the end of the song, we were in tears laughing!" smiled Siobhan.
The shows were the main attraction and generated many laughs amongst all audience members and participants. But there were other moments that resonated more deeply with NECP that was not a performance, a support project, or a camp visit.
"My favorite memories are when I got to know someone on a personal level. I was lucky to meet a few people who would spend hours of their free time, instead of sleeping, talking to me and the rest of the girls. It felt so good just to listen to their experiences, listen to their points of view, and interact. I'll always remember those talks," said Patricia.
Lighthearted moments happened throughout the entire trip. NEPC was able to get the troops laughing, dancing, and singing to help the camps enjoy the holiday spirit. Almost a year has gone past since the visit and NEPC still receives letters from the troops expressing their gratitude. Last month, Patricia and Siobhan were on an appearance and had an interaction with an NEPC fan that proved how small the world can truly feel.
"Patricia and I were doing an appearance in Bangor, ME and we had been there for a couple hours and a guy came up to us with a poster from last year. We were both confused as to why he wanted to show us the poster so bad. He said his daughter was over in Afghanistan when we visited and she sent the poster to him as a surprise. It had all of our signatures on it from our visit to her base!" said Siobhan.
The roots of Patriot Nation spread way beyond New England and were visibly evident during the visit overseas.
"Football reminds you of home and we're associated with it, so we brought it there for them. There are some people that we met who wake up at 4:00 am. just to watch the Patriots game. We have some real serious football fans," laughed Stephanie.
The roots run deep, but the loyalty does not compare to the support system that has been established globally for our troops.
"It was hard to understand why were so excited to see us. We were thrilled and honored to be over. For them to admire us was shocking. They're so special to all of us for doing what they're doing. After experiencing life overseas, words can't express how thankful we are for their services," said Kelsey.
A loss of words is a common expression to describe an event or experience that one is completely unfamiliar with. During these holidays, however familiar or unfamiliar one's gathering may be, just be thankful for the opportunity - it is the best way to show support to the troops.