Tomorrow is Christmas.
Millions of families will celebrate with loved ones nationwide, but thousands of families will be incomplete. Loved ones remain overseas fighting a global war on terror that started after the 9/11 attacks.
When service personnel will be home is unknown. Yet families continue to cope while their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews are in harms way.
Here is how some local families celebrate the holiday season in new sweaters and slippers while their loved ones will fight on donning fatigues and combat boots.
Capt. Thomas Nelson, U.S. Army
Capt. Thomas Nelson, a West Point graduate from Williams Bay, is often on secret missions during his second tour in Iraq, his parents say.
Bruce and Karolyn Nelson often don't hear from him for days or weeks. And they haven't seen their 25-year-old son since July.
They won't see him at Christmas again this year, which is why they celebrated over Tom's short stay home this summer, Bruce said.
"The holidays are hard," Bruce said. "It's a time you miss your children.
"We had Christmas in July when Tom was home for two days. We knew we wouldn't see him until 2008, so we planned ahead."
Since then, family members have sent gifts to Tom and supported troops stateside.
"It's also a time that since we're sensitized to Tom being away, we're more sensitized to the rest of the servicemen and women overseas as well," Bruce said.
"Seeing two guys in uniform eating in a restaurant, Dad pulled the waiter over, bought their dinner for them," chimed in Ben, Tom's older brother.
"It was just something to say ‘thank you' to them," Bruce said of the Army soldiers he saw. "We always try to lift up our servicemen and women."
All soldiers in Tom's company of the 82nd Airborne will see their families this Christmas, however.
His wife, Lauren, who lives in North Carolina near Fort Bragg, was in charge of collecting family photos of all the soldiers and creating a large banner with them to send to Iraq.
Because of his missions, talking with Tom is random. He is in harm's way a lot.
"There are times when Mom (Karolyn) gets very melancholy, when we think about how far away he is and how much danger he is in," Bruce said. "There are times tears come to our eyes, thinking about the dangerous work he is doing.
"But you hear the excitement in Tom's voice for the difference he is making overseas. He can't give us details about the relationships with people he meets on the ground, but a lot of people are supportive of the work that they're doing and are supporting the work to get rid of al-Qaida."
And if they do talk to him on Christmas, there is only one simple message they will tell him.
"That we love him and we're looking forward to seeing him in February," Karolyn said. "And that we're proud of him."
Sgt. Denver Stubbe,
U.S. Army Sgt. Denver Stubbe gets a double shot of Christmas.
Stubbe, of Augusta in Eau Claire County, is the nephew of Lynette and Derrick Scharine of Whitewater and Kirk and Rita Stubbe of Janesville. His parents are Eugene and Pam Stubbe.
The "Stubbe Christmas" happens twice per year, once at the "Stubbe Picnic" and once in fall, Lynette said.
The family gets together for a gathering every summer and puts together a care package for Denver, who is in his second tour in Iraq.
In the fall, they "wing it" and put together a package of necessities that should arrive before the holidays, Lynette said.
Denver will be gone for this third-straight holiday season. He was stationed in Germany two years ago and sleeping on the ground in Iraq last year.
He was redeployed and will be staying at a base outside Baghdad this year, Lynette said. Denver recently signed up for another six years in the Army.
The family sent a small refrigerator Denver ordered so he can enjoy cold sodas and food. Care packages include his favorites from home—any kind of magazines because "if he doesn't like it, someone else will," Mountain Dew, cans of baked beans and homemade venison jerky. The bottles of Febreze fabric deodorizer are nice, too, Lynette said.
"They don't have opportunities to take a lot of showers," she said.
Denver will be missed at the Christmas gatherings again this year, which usually consist of a family dinner, gift exchange and games. They notice his absence most when dessert is served.
"He's 6-foot-5 with size 15 feet, so you miss the big guy in the room," Lynette said. "We always have a pan of chocolate brownies my sister would make. He'd take a row of them."
Pfc. Matthew Johnson,
Patti Christianson will spend her first Christmas in 21 years without her son.
Pfc. Matthew Johnson of rural Janesville was sent to Iraq on Nov. 8 for the start of a 15-month tour, Patti said.
"I'm sad, but he's OK. He gets to call me pretty much every day so that helps. That helps a whole lot," she said. "As long as I can keep in touch with him, I'm happy. He says things are fine over there, and if he says it's fine, it's not too bad."
Matthew is an ammunitions specialist with the 24th Ordinance Company at an airbase west of Baghdad.
Every Christmas was spent with family in Durand, Ill., at Matthew's aunt's house.
"We go to my sister's house and spend it with my mom. It will be hard for my mom this year without him being over there," Patti said. Matthew's 73-year-old grandmother is in a nursing home, and the two became close when he lived with her as a boy.
Matthew has presents wrapped and waiting for him when he gets a leave in September. The family will celebrate Christmas 2008 at that time, Patti said.
Family and friends haven't forgotten him over the holidays.
Matthew tells his mom he'll miss being home, but "he's getting lots of gifts so he's happy," Patti said.
"He's been getting packages almost every day. He said, ‘I think I'm getting more now than I have before.' So he's content."
Family and friends are sending him snack food, handheld video games and lots of batteries to help the slow times pass by.
Patti hopes her son will be able to call home on Christmas.
"I said, at least talk to Grandma. If he only has a few minutes, at least call and talk to Grandma."
Maj. Lisa Loomer and Lt. Col. John Loomer, U.S. Army
About a month ago, the Loomer family in Delavan found out Lisa, a major with the 332nd Rear Operations Center, would be home just days before Christmas.
"The kids are bouncing off the wall," said Lt. Col. John Loomer, a reservist with the 157th Combat Support Brigade. "They're looking forward to seeing Mom."
Lisa has been serving in northern Iraq since August but will have the chance to spend Christmas with her family.
Last year it was John who was overseas during the holidays. He was 8,000 feet high in Afghanistan's mountains on Christmas day.
"What I missed most was the voices. The kids talking," John said.
"I still get a kick—the kids are 9, 11 and 13—when they first get up in the morning. They get up plenty early for Christmas, but not for school. At 6 a.m., they go running downstairs and open stockings and look for their gifts.
"I missed their voices, their footsteps running downstairs and the kids talking to each other. ‘Look what I got.'"
Christmas has gotten easier for soldiers overseas with the likes of available telephones, online chatting, video conferencing and e-mail.
Last year, "my wife took pictures of Christmas and e-mailed them to me sometime the same day," John said. "I was like, ‘OK, it's almost like being there.'"
Instant communications is a huge morale boost for today's volunteer service personnel, John said. It helps soldiers get through the day, especially during the holidays.
"Life is as best as it can be under the circumstances," he said. "I was 8,000 feet in the air and had six inches of snow on Christmas day. But I had warm clothes, food and the ability to communicate. I was happy. I'm happy to serve."
And the Loomer family is just as happy to have Lisa home for the holidays. She'll redeploy to Iraq in early January.