Raleigh, N.C. — Thousands of soldiers and their families, including many in North Carolina, celebrated the holidays while their loved ones were thousands of miles away.
Frank Brown's wife Sheila was stationed in southwest Asia with the Air Force over this Christmas. Frank Brown had a hard time getting their son Cameron sitting down to tell his mother that he loved her over the phone, but the boy told her all about his new toys before Sheila Brown had to hang up.
"I think she wanted to cut it short before it got too emotional," Frank Brown said.
The military husband said he explains to Cameron that his mother is taking care of important responsibilities when she is away from them.
"We tell him mom has some important work in the desert where a lot of people need her help. And I think for the most part he understands," Frank Brown said.
Still, missing out on moments with his wife makes the Christmas season hard for him, Frank Brown said.
"I went Christmas shopping the other day, and I said, 'Mom, I feel sad. I see people in the mall, and they are holding hands,'" he said.
Service members and their families got a little cheer and help on Christmas Day at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, thanks to the United Service Organization. The USO room at the airport offered food, welcome and even gifts under the tree for traveling military members and their relatives.
OVer the holidays, USO volunteers said they served more than 100 service members a day.
Stacy Kawaga said the USO's help was extremely welcome when she and her 2-year-old son Takashi were stranded in RDU for the night on a trek to visit family in Boston. Kawaga's husband is deployed to Iraq.
"I missed my flight and was on an airline that did not have a bunch of options," Kawaga said. Staying in a hotel room was cost prohibitive, because "Army salaries are not all that much, you know," she said.
The offer from a USO volunteer was unexpected: "On behalf of the Red Cross and the USO, we will take you to a hotel tonight."
Marine Cpl. Craig Gregory, his wife and dog stopped by the USO center just to give their thanks to the volunteers. Gregory said this was his first Christmas home in three years; for the past two, he was "pretty much in the middle of Iraq."
"It (the USO center) is fantastic. I love it," Gregory said.
Syreeta Dowdy commiserates with the feelings of soldiers and loved ones separated over the holidays. Her Navy husband, Lt. O.J. Dowdy, has spent most of their marriage deployed overseas, most recently to Iraq.
"I was a little overwhelmed, a little upset," Syreeta Dowdy said.
This Christmas, though, delivered an unexpected gift to Syreeta Dowdy's doorstep: her husband, who said a change in his orders let him be home for the holiday.
"I try to cherish every special event or every time that I get with my wife," Lt. O.J. Dowdy said.
He added that even in the midst of the celebration with his family, he was reminded of those soldiers who did not get the unexpected surprise that he did.
"It is special for me to be home, but then, too, you know, it's still a sort of sadness for them, because they are still over there," Lt. O.J. Dowdy said.
Frank Brown struck a similar chord of satisfaction and sadness over his wife's service.
"We miss her very much, but I guess we are very proud of her, and we admire her," he said.
Sheila Brown did get a verbal gift from Cameron: "I love you," he said.