Used to being apart during holidays, Shaw Air Force Base airmen keep holiday spirit


Vicki Charbonneau is used to being separated from her family for long periods of time.

Being in the Air Force for 12 years, Lt. Col. Charbonneau has been deployed numerous times throughout her military career to the point where she and other military personnel are called "turtles" by her husband.

"We're kind of accustomed to being turtles and carrying all of our homes on our backs," she said.

Spending the holidays away from loved ones is difficult for everyone, but for members of the military and their families, there comes an added layer. Many family traditions around Christmas have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and Charbonneau's holiday is one of them.

The Kansas native says her family likes to gather for holiday meals, listen to the annual sleigh-load of Christmas songs and build gingerbread houses with her daughter. Most of these festive activities can't happen this year because of the pandemic. As a public health officer - she works on the surgical  general's  team at AFCENT - she knows the chance of someone getting infected is higher the larger the family gathering.

Not all is lost for Charbonneau. Most of her family compensated for the situation by live-streaming themselves preparing food in different time zones across the country. The mother of two admits this pandemic has surprisingly brought her family closer together than before.

"We've been communicating more with our family because we're more aware that we're not able to get together like we hoped," she said. "It's been actually better. I think I know more of what's going on in their lives now than I did before."

Charbonneau is not the only military service member whose holiday world has been flipped upside down.

SSgt. Lauren, who asked her last name be withheld because of her position at Shaw, comes from a big Georgia family. Being in the Air Force for six years, Lauren is used to being away from family because both she and her husband are in the military. Even so, they celebrate the holidays any chance they get with each other's families. She spent time with them last year during the holidays but admits this year is vastly different.

"Just the tradition of physically being together has taken a new turn," she said.

The long-distance relationship she experienced with her family back when she was deployed in Alaska a year ago was understandable, she said, but now that she is closer to home, the pandemic prevents any family gatherings.

"I can't just drive home and see them," she said. "Now that I have the opportunity, I can't really do so because of the circumstances. I think that it presents a unique challenge that I'm having to adjust to."

They postponed parties and activities such as singing Christmas carols and their traditional family meal to lessen the risk of an infected person spreading the virus.

This was a hard choice to make for Lauren because her grandfather has cancer. Lauren said she "would love nothing more" than to visit her grandparents, but with her occupation and the current virus surge, she knows it's too much of a risk to him.

"Knowing that this could be his last one is like a dual-edged sword because you want to spend time with them because it could be their last one, but that also means a higher risk, and I don't really want to put him at risk," she said.

Both women do keep in contact with family members on a regular basis as Shaw Air Force Base allows virtual engagements with loved ones. This has taught them the importance of finding creative ways to keep connections in times when you can't do regular visits or see family members.

Charbonneau is glad she can still talk with her "hubby" virtually while he is busy at home with their children. She is excited to virtually watch classic Christmas flicks with them such as Home Alone, A Christmas Story or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

These airmen refuse to allow a pandemic to dampen their holiday spirits and still plan to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

"We look forward to being with family," Charbonneau said, "and seeing something new."