Boxes of love for our troops abroad

What do our soldiers serving abroad long for at Christmas time? Their spouses know best, as Helen O’Callaghan discovered, when she spoke to army wives busy wrapping their present-filled giftboxes

Boxes of love for our troops abroad

THE British Ministry of Defence two months ago warned the public not to send Christmas presents to troops in Afghanistan, because packages require convoys to deliver them and convoys put troops’ lives at risk.

Plus, multitudes of Christmas presents from strangers delay soldiers getting parcels from loved ones. The Irish Defence Forces don’t have such a warning. “We don’t generally have the same numbers serving overseas as the British Army, so there’s no recommendation [about] posting of unsolicited parcels, as this hasn’t been a problem in the past,” says Sgt Rena Kennedy.

Audrey McNamee is sending her platoon sergeant husband John, 32, a box of goodies, including Tayto cheese and onion crisps. “He said ‘I don’t care what I get, just send me Tayto cheese and onion,” says Audrey, 28, a special needs assistant in Mullingar. “I’m also sending him a pair of Nike LunarGlide runners. They’re green and black — he loves luminous colours. He’s fitness mad, a big runner, so he wears out runners pretty fast. He’ll tell you they only last three or four months. I’d normally get him training gear, maybe aftershave. He won’t be expecting the runners, so it will be a surprise, even though he dropped enough hints, saying stuff like ‘my runners are wearing out’.”

Together for 10 years, Audrey and John have two children — Katie-Lou will be seven on St Stephen’s Day and Jack is two. “Katie-Lou put a Christmas angel into the box. She bought it with her pocket money. He’s also getting Cadbury’s chocolate, Barry’s tea-bags, extra bubble-gum, and chocolate raisins from Jack. We’re sending him Christmas cards and a birthday card, because his birthday was on Dec 7.”

This is John’s fourth tour of duty and the couple’s third Christmas apart. “He went on Nov 19. We knew he was due to do the trip, but it’s hard. My dad was 34 years in the army and he was away for one Christmas, when I was 11. Sometimes, you feel you’re used to it. Then it comes and it doesn’t get any easier. Christmas morning will be hardest. The kids will get up — John won’t be there. This year, I’m going to my mam’s for Christmas Eve. “We have a great family behind us. Santa Claus is coming to nanny’s this year — we told him in the letter. Jack has no concept of time, but Katie-Lou will miss him {John}. She will struggle on Christmas Day. She and he are like peas in a pod — they do everything together.

“We’ll Skype him when we’re down in mam’s, but I don’t like Skype. I find you’re saying goodbye all over again ... but it’s great for the kids. Last time he was away for Christmas, Katie-Lou was two. The barracks brought us in and we talked to him via video link. What I’m going to miss most this year is sitting down as a family watching movies and playing with the kids and their toys. He’s going to miss their faces when Santa comes.”

Lillian Condon, 27, a stay-at-home mum in Carrigaline, was gutted that her husband Shane’s tour of duty in Syria meant he’d be away for Christmas. A trooper, Shane, 29, went to Syria on Sept 20. Shane will get back for two weeks on Dec 30, but it’s the couple’s first Christmas apart — they’re together 12 years — and Lillian will put on a brave face for their children, Shane Jr who’s three-and-a-half, and 18-month-old Sophie.

“It will be very lonely without him. The children ask for their daddy everyday. I’m just going to have to hold up. Putting up the Christmas tree was very lonely. I’m staying strong for the kids, but I know it’s going to get to me, at some stage,” she says.

Lillian has sent Shane a ‘care package’ with his favourite goodies — pot noodles, Kit Kat Chunky, Haribo packs of jellies. “He also loves his mini rolls,” she says. For Christmas, she’s getting him his favourite aftershave — Fahrenheit. “I usually get it for him at Christmas. I’m also getting him a diary, because he loves keeping logs. His favourite sweets are ‘love hearts’ and he’s getting those from the kids.”

Lillian’s having her family and Shane’s with her for Christmas Eve. “I’m going to be thinking of Shane all day. We’ll be Skyping — the kids will be mad to show off the Christmas presents they got from Santa. I prefer talking to him on the phone. Seeing him on Skype gets me a lot more. It’s the same for Shane, my eldest boy, so we don’t Skype too often. It’s tougher to see him. It pulls at your heart much more, seeing his face and him talking and I just miss him so much and I can’t touch him. I just want to give him a hug when I see him. He’ll want to see the kids with their presents, but it’s harder for him.”

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