Thousands struggle through holidays without parents, relatives - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Thousands struggle through holidays without parents, relatives

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - For many families in Clarksville, the one Christmas gift they wished for won't be coming true: having soldiers home for the holidays.

This isn't the first time the children of Fort Campbell soldiers have had to celebrate without a mother or a father around. Officials estimate about 8,000 kids in the Montgomery County school district have parents who are in the military.

That doesn't include students who attend the eight schools on post or live on the Kentucky side of the sprawling base on the state line.

Gabriel Stefanko, 9, is the oldest child out of the three siblings and says he's taking the disappointment better than his 7-year-old brother Gage and his 5-year-old sister Carollynn. He's been through many months without his dad, who is in Iraq on his second deployment.       "It's easier because I know what it's like to have him gone," said Stefanko.

The 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell is now serving its third deployment since 2003. About 11,000 soldiers have been deployed since August and another 8,000 will deploy to Afghanistan after the first of the new year.

But for some military families, they can't celebrate Christmas like others. When loved ones are putting their lives at risk every day, happiness doesn't come easily.

Northeast High School senior Tiffany Ludka says without her stepfather home, there's no point in celebrating Christmas this year.

"It's just me and my mother, so why would we even bother to cook turkey for Christmas if there's no one to eat it?" she said. "There are other Army wives who encourage each other, but it's not the same."

At her school, about 70 percent of students have parents who serve in the military, Principal Melissa Champion said.

"Our students are so resilient, but for most of them this is their second or third deployment," she said. "They put on a strong face for you; this is what they know. But the students didn't volunteer for this. They've been drafted. They're serving, too."

But Maria Becker, whose husband is serving a second tour of duty in Iraq, said she keeps the traditions of Christmas for the sake of her two sons.

"It's still Christmas. You follow the same traditions as when he's here, but it's just not the same," Becker said. "My older son, it's been harder for him, especially that he's a daddy's boy. But my husband's stocking will be hung up with our stockings. We definitely decorated, for the kids."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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