Before she and her children attempted to put up Christmas decorations on their DuPont house, Angie DeLapp wanted to make one thing clear.
"This is usually my husband's job," DeLapp said. "But we'll give it a try and see if we can get this stuff up."
It didn't take long. A ladder, three kids and some hot cocoa were just about the perfect recipe for success.
"We did it!" said 9-year-old Gabe. The family had put up a snowman, icicle lights and lighted wreaths.
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The only injury happened after the fact. Sixteen-month-old Luke took a short tumble. But, placed atop his favorite riding truck and grasping a framed photo of his dad, Maj. Jim DeLapp, in one hand, he was all smiles as he puttered around.
"Is that Daddy?" Sophia, 7, asked her little brother.
A huge smile spread across Luke's face as he gazed at the photo.
"I think he knows who his daddy is," Angie said. "He talks to him on the phone."
The holidays can be a challenge for military families, especially when one or more family members are deployed on the other side of the world. Jim DeLapp is in Afghanistan with a Fort Lewis engineering group.
"He's building bridges, putting in roads," Angie said. "They're not paving much, but they're spreading a lot of gravel."
He left in February and was supposed to be gone for about a year, but his tour was extended to 16 months. The family is expecting him to come home in late spring.
This is the longest of five tours Jim DeLapp has been on since he and Angie were married 11 years ago. They met at Kansas State University and married after they had finished school.
"You get used to it," said Angie, adding that she and the children were grateful for some R&R time her husband had in August. "What are you going to do? We're actually very lucky. We're settled, we have a good home, and things are going pretty smoothly."
The trick is not to count the days, she said.
"You can't mark off the days one by one," she said. "You kind of have to just go about your business and then you look up and see, wow, a lot of time has passed and you're closer to when he gets to come home."
Jim gets to call home two or three times per week, for about 20 minutes per call. That and "a lot of e-mail" keep the family in touch, Angie said.
"He asks me about guitar lessons and Boy Scouts," Gabe said.
"We talk about my dancing and school," Sophia said.
He's had one close call while in Afghanistan, Angie said.
Gabe chimed in: "Sabotage."
"They were working on a bridge, and a suicide bomber got a little too close," Angie explained. But Jim escaped injury.
A letter home
The News Tribune was able to get in touch with Jim DeLapp by e-mail, and he sent a reply along with some photos of holiday life in Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts.
• "This is only my second Christmas deployed away from my family, but it remains challenging for both the families and soldiers. The largest pain is not being there with the kids, as you know that is a time that you cannot get back."
• "In Afghanistan, Task Force Pacemaker will work through the 24th of December and take Christmas Day off. I plan to fill in any guard shift I can to ensure our soldiers can just relax."
• "My family has sent over a small Christmas tree that I have set up in my quarters to give a sense of Christmas. Our forward operating base is at a high elevation of 7,600 feet, but there are no trees in sight. To give a greater sense of Christmas, we had one of our units bring back a 25-foot pine tree from the Afghan-Pakistan border region that we set up in our Task Force Headquarters courtyard. Our Rear-Detachment sent over boxes of lights and decorations to outfit this tree. It has served as a huge morale booster for our soldiers and others on our forward operating base. Little efforts like these begin to make the season feel like Christmas but cannot replace the fact that you are not with your family."
Eva Hart is taking care of her 10-year-old granddaughter, Arianna Hart, while Arianna's dad (and Eva's son), Staff Sgt. Ben Hart, a Stryker soldier, is serving in Iraq.
Ben Hart is with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division and isn't as easy to get in touch with as Jim DeLapp. Eva and Arianna have gone as long as a month without hearing from him, but Eva said he is generally able to get through about once every two weeks.
"It's very sporadic," Eva said. "He pays a friend to use his cell phone. As long as he can, he talks to his daughter. When he's able to call, he tries to call her to wake her up in the morning and tell her to have a good day."
Arianna's mother is "out of the picture," Eva said.
Ben Hart left for Iraq on Easter Sunday this year, and is due for some R&R at the end of February. "It's been hard because I don't have too much adult contact," Eva said. "I don't really know anybody in my son's company."
They have big plans for February. Ben's birthday falls midmonth, after Arianna's January birthday. Arianna said the two of them plan to do some adventuring.
"We might go out to dinner," Arianna said. "But he's also going to take me rock-wall climbing."
Eva said her son doesn't describe much of what's going on around him in Iraq. "He doesn't discuss it, and he doesn't tell me really what's going on there because I might get concerned," she said. "He doesn't want me to worry."
Arianna is free to ask any questions or talk about whatever she wants to with Grandma, Eva said. And once a week at DuPont's Chloe Clark Elementary School, she attends counseling sessions for students who have deployed family members. Eva tries to keep her granddaughter busy with swimming, bowling, skating, cheerleading, band and other fun activities. She volunteers a few days each week at Arianna's school and recently set up the Holiday Shoppe there so that students could pick out small presents for family members. "I need to be busy," Eva said.
Eva was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1990s. She's had two mastectomies, but in June 2000 the cancer came back. She's been on "heavy duty" chemotherapy and drugs for the past few years.
"I have to do it if I want to stay alive," she said.
Even with her health problems, she said she enjoys staying busy with her granddaughter.
"We have our moments when we have a hard time," she said. "But we do enjoy each other."
Ben left them with a laptop so they can send e-mails back and forth. Arianna and her father exchange humorous e-cards, and Eva and Arianna send packages every two weeks.
"He received his Christmas box," Eva said. "He said he's dying to open it up, and he doesn't know how long he can hold out. I don't think he'll be able to wait until Christmas."
Her father told her she would be able to open one Christmas present if she showed him a good report card. Arianna's excellent report card earned her an early present, a robotic puppy that can learn to do tricks.
"I named him Precious," Arianna said.
And she has some advice for other kids who are facing the issue of deployed parents.
"If you believe they're going to come back, they will."