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CALEDONIA — In October John and Diana Rettig went to Oregon to celebrate an early Thanksgiving and Christmas with their son Jacob, his wife, Holly, and their two grandchildren.

Both of the Rettigs’ sons are in the military. Jacob was an Army pilot who switched over to the Coast Guard two years ago. James was in the ROTC program at Marquette University and is now an Army captain.

Knowing Jacob and his family wouldn’t be able to spend Thanksgiving nor Christmas with them this year, the Rettigs decided to celebrate both holidays with them when they could — in October.

“You open your gifts and have it early. It’s not so important, the day,” said Rettig. “(The grandchildren) are young enough that you say, ‘We’re celebrating Thanksgiving!’ and they say ‘OK.’”

Diana didn’t grow up in a military family, so having two sons in the service took some adjusting.

“It was hard — it was very hard. I didn’t have any military background. I didn’t know what any of these acronyms meant,” she said. “That is why I started a group.”

The group, Blue Star Moms of Southeast Wisconsin, Chapter 2, is part of larger network of Blue Star family organizations that support the families of active service members. For the Blue Star moms, the group has helped them cope with a situation that can be alien to those who have never served.

Life in a military family

“People don’t really understand what our military does for our country,” said Cathy Ramage of Wind Point. “I don’t think that people realize that when you have children in the military it’s different. You worry a lot. And they don’t know how to support that because they don’t understand.”

Three of her children are in the service and, while not all three can make it home for Christmas, she’s at least grateful that none are deployed at the moment. Her oldest son, Jack, who’s in the Navy, has been deployed twice to the Persian Gulf but now works in human resources at the base in Virginia Beach.

She is worried that her second son, Eric, could be deployed soon. He’s in the Army infantry and is part of a heavy weapons platoon.

“So he’s boots on the ground,” said Ramage. “(You’re) worrying about their safety. It’s always in the back of your mind. (You) hope that they stay safe and happy.”

For now, Ramage knows she’ll get to have him home for two weeks over the holidays, “which will be really nice,” she said.

Rettig said that when her children were deployed, she lived for phone calls from them.

“Because you’re lucky if you can talk to them once a week,” she said.

Those conversations have to walk a delicate balance to make the soldier feel included.

“It’s real important that you share things with them but it’s important you don’t go on about what happened so they don’t feel like they’re missing out,” she said. “You try to change subjects so it’s not about them missing something.”

Staying connected

In addition to phone calls, Skype, Facetime and care packages, Blue Star families have to get creative sometimes with making their military family members feel included.

This year Rettig’s group sent Christmas stockings to service members stationed stateside and decorated miniature Christmas trees for those stationed abroad through the organization Trees From Home.

When James Rettig couldn’t make it to a close cousin’s wedding, the Blue Star Moms made his likeness into a “Soldier on a Stick” by cutting out a large print of his photo and attaching it to a handle. Stick-man James was included in photos with family and friends, including with the bride and groom. But it wasn’t quite the same.

“It was hard not having him home for the wedding,” Diana Rettig said.

With her sons stationed on opposite ends of the country, Diana knows it will be some time before she can have all her children home for Christmas.

“It’s hard for the mom because sometimes you want all your kids home,” she said. “And sometimes its years before you get everyone on leave.”

In spite of the obstacles, Diana thinks that military families may be better than non-military with scheduling times for everyone to get online and chat with each other.

“Because we have to set that time,” she said. “We can’t take it for granted.”

Diana makes sure to send her boys a stocking every year as well as do all the things her family has always done around the holidays.

“Tradition is just so important,” she said. “Just because they’re not here doesn’t mean you should stop.”

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Christina Lieffring covers the Burlington area and the Village of Caledonia. Before moving to Racine, she lived in Nebraska, Beijing, Chicago and grew up in Kansas City.

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