Throughout the Tri-State area, the families of U.S. military personnel stationed overseas are preparing for a holiday season with absent loved ones. A few families - including the Bollands of Boonsboro and the Burgers of Halfway - had early celebrations with military sons on leave, but these families and most others interviewed recently say they will put the holidays on hold until their loved ones come home for good.
Labanowski says she's already mailed to Billy Dunn, who does surveillance work in a Kiowa helicopter, two packages for Christmas filled with such items as T-shirts, an electric razor, cards from church friends, pictures of the deer he loves to hunt, and photographs of Jacob with the boys' dog, Gracie.
Donald and Betty Burger of Halfway recently said goodbye to their son, Army Spc. Daniel R. Burger, who returned to service as an artillery man with the 101st-187th Infantry Unit of the 3rd Brigade in Iraq after a brief visit home. Burger is married to former Hagerstown resident Krista Hepner Burger, who now lives in Kentucky.
Saying goodbye, Betty Burger says, "was hard on all of us."
Her son has been in Iraq since last February and is not slated to come home until April. The Burgers went Christmas shopping during their son's visit, have mailed him other gifts - including instant mashed potatoes that the soldier prepared and shared with a line of hungry platoon mates - and plan a big holiday celebration after his tour of duty ends, they say.
"We're not having Christmas until he comes home," Betty Burger says.
The holidays came early to the Boonsboro home of Patty and Fred Bolland - Nov. 10, to be exact. That's when Patty Bolland saw her son, Army Spc. Glenn Bolland, walk in the door after more than two years overseas.
"It's a wonderful Christmas gift," Patty Bolland says. She can't stop smiling.
Glenn Bolland, who is assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy and now works as a medic with Bravo Company 1st 508 Division in Iraq, only learned of his impending leave an hour before he was shuttled to the airport, he says. He called his wife, Jennifer Bolland - a Greencastle, Pa., native now living in Italy - to tell her he was coming home so she could join him. But he kept his return a surprise for his parents. The entire family celebrated the holidays with a big gathering at the Bollands' Boonsboro home on Nov. 16. Glen Bolland also spent time with his in-laws, Steve and Renee Perrin of Greencastle.
Despite Glenn Bolland's homecoming euphoria - "It's the greatest thing in the world," he says - he "doesn't feel right being back home" while his fellow soldiers are still in Iraq. He flew back on Wednesday, Nov. 26, and doesn't know when he'll be home again.
Army Sgt. Michael Sherwood can't spend Christmas with his parents in Fort Loudon, Pa., this year, so Melvin and Ginger Sherwood will ship some of the holiday spirit to their son in Germany.
"We try to get his gifts to him," Melvin Sherwood says. "And his mother bakes for him, and for more than just the holidays."
Michael Sherwood, 23, is expected to return to the United States - and a big family celebration - in June, his father says.
Lynn Jones of Keedysville is bracing for her first holiday season without her children, Army Pvt. 1st Class Kelly Hurlbrink, 20, and Army Spc. Kevin Hurlbrink, 22, both of whom are serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq.
"I really can't imagine Christmas or Thanksgiving without my kids," Jones says. She's already mailed holiday gifts to her children, and will truly celebrate the season when they return to Keedysville, she says.
Spc. Darren Vogt defends troops on the front line of combat as a mortar man for the Army's 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. That's where he'll be this holiday season.
"It is a hard time, but it's also a good time because he's defending his country," says Vogt's mother, Kathy Hall of Hagerstown. "That's where he wants to be."
Her son had planned to start college after he returned home from Afghanistan in June 2002, but he decided to re-enlist after losing friends in combat, his mother says. She doesn't expect her son to return home for at least six or seven months.