Rick and Jenette Crabb both served 20 years in the United States Navy, keeping them away from small and memorable moments in their children’s’ lives. The two vividly and emotionally recall their time spent away during holidays like Christmas.
Now, their two sons are enlisted in the Navy which makes those holidays even tougher.
Their youngest, Jacob, 31, is floating on the USS Kane (DDG-69) destroyer in the Pacific Ocean. With only email and Facebook to communicate, he’s shared with his mother how difficult it is being away from home, especially his wife who’s pregnant with their first child.
Justin, 32, always knew he wanted to join the Navy. He isn’t deployed at the moment but works on base in Hawaii. When he sees his two boys at the end of the day, they are usually in bed. Rick said as Justin kisses his boys at night, he hopes they don’t join the military because of how hard it is for the parents.
Rick and Jenette were both in the medical field, so their deployments weren’t near as long as what their boys go through. Justin is a surface warfare officer which means he will be driving the ships and Jacob is a supply corps officer.
Through deployments, Rick and Jenette admittedly agreed they rarely considered the effects on the home front of their being away. But now, as parents, they are well aware.
“Well I’ll tell you one thing, it was okay for us to do it to our parents but it’s different when it’s your kids, especially when you have grandkids,” Jenette said.
Being retired, Rick volunteers with the North Texas Patriot Guard motorcycle club where he attends services for fallen soldiers, first responders and honorably discharged veterans. Rick said he’s been to over 350 funerals this year.
“I was teaching casualty assistance when I retired from the military, teaching people how to knock on the door and say, ‘We regret to inform you that your son has been killed in combat.' Every time I turn into my driveway, I look to see if that car is in front of my house,” Rick said.
Blessed with the internet, Rick and Jenette continuously communicate with their sons, or at least as often as possible. Justin recently sent a photo of him diving off the ship into the Pacific Ocean while he and his shipmates swam. He will also send updates of his location, but he can only share his latitude, leaving his parents always questioning his whereabouts and safety.
Jenettes mother was recently hospitalized, so Justin has often communicated, asking for updates on his grandmother.
“Thirty years ago, I would have found out she was critically ill by the time she was out of the hospital and fine,” Rick said.
Rick reflected on the communication factor and how it’s changed over the years. He remembers sending his first email. He said the concept of email was a lifeline and connected people, making it easier to communicate.
Jenette said she wrote Rick letters every day.
“Even though you can’t be here in person, doesn’t mean that the relationship isn’t as close. It’s just the life they’ve chosen,” Jenette said.
But when the holidays loom and a person is deployed, away from their family, the mood of the sailors shift. Ricked described it as melancholy.
On Christmas day, “They try to fix a big meal, normally something special you’d eat that day. You go to chapel — Jacob will be leading the worship service on his destroyer because they don’t have a chaplain on the ship. You’ll sing Christmas carols, and you’re there for each other, but everyone wants to be home with their family,” Rick said.
Jenette added, “But your family isn’t there, you try to pretend.”
Rick explained when a person joins the military it’s like getting a new family from the bond he or she creates through laughing together, as well as being there for each other mentally and physically.
“But the military becomes your family,” Jenette said. “For many years, we did a Christmas brunch and we’d dress up and you create your own traditions that don’t include family. Enlisted people, sailors who didn’t have family would come over and eat. We always opened up to have a lot of people over for the holidays, and that just replaces family,” Jenette said.
All families have traditions of their own. In the Crabb family, before opening presents, they read the Bible and “A Christmas Story.” They also always watch “White Christmas.” Since it’s just Rick and Jenette this year, they said they’d probably curl up in bed on Christmas day and watch “White Christmas” together.
The last time the boys were home for Christmas was 2009. It wasn’t until six years later that the four were together again to celebrate Christmas.
When serving in the military or even when a person has a family member serving, the holidays are always difficult. Christmas music alone is a constant reminder that they should be with their family but aren’t.
For instance, the same year Rick was deployed to Somalia, the song “I’ll be sailing home for Christmas” came out. It’s written from the perspective of a military member deployed, wishing to come home for Christmas but knows they need to serve their country instead.
“That song gets me emotional, it’s awful,” Rick said. “I was driving down the street, and I remember where I was at in Oceanside California and the song came on the radio and I had to pull over on the side of the road and cried like a baby.”
Rick and Jenette then played the song “I’ll be sailing home for Christmas” from their living room stereo. Looking back at them, each had tears streaming down their faces. Choking up, Jenette said while listening to the song she hopes that her boys make it back home from their sea tours.
Jenette said hanging ornaments on their tree makes her reflect on being with her boys. She still has a lot of the decorations Justin and Jacob crafted. Rick and Jenette both laughed about the manger ornament that was crafted from a toilet paper roll. But walking into their home, not a single holiday decoration will show this year. Since Jenette’s mother is in the hospital and the boys are gone, they put aside decorating.
Looking back at all of the Christmases they've shared, two stand out.
After serving 20 years in the navy, Rick retired in 2005 from the military and thought he’d be able to stay home for the holidays. But, he was ordered to go to Bagdad as a contractor at Christmas.
“It was still serial to be away from my family. All of my friends, the guys that I’d worked with were in Folusa, which was only a few miles away, and they are sleeping in blown out buildings without any windows or doors, on the floor, in the dust,” Rick said.
In 1991, the four of them were living in Okinawa. Usually, they’d travel to Midlothian to stay with Rick’s family for Christmas, but that year they decided to stay home. Rick said he wonders what it was like for his parents when they didn’t come that year.
Jenette explained how families who don’t have members in the military don’t understand what they are going through. She said, “Military families are at war. The rest of the United States isn’t aware of the fact.”
But at this time of year, it’s important for Rick that people pray for the troops every day and to think about the ones who are home and who can’t come home.