WASHINGTON - Staff Sgt. Christopher Freeman, who is deployed in Afghanistan, relies on his Army training and support from his family and battle buddies to stay Army Strong while thousands of miles from home.
Although being away from family is difficult, especially over the holidays, Freeman said knowing he is part of a greater mission puts the separation in perspective and helps reduce the stress.
Freeman, a public affairs non-commissioned officer for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, said Army training is invaluable in being resilient.
He said his brigade - the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina - made sure everyone took part in resilience training before they deployed.
The brigade also ensured their Soldiers understood all the policies and procedures of the Army, including those related to equal opportunity policies, and prevention and response to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
"That pre-planning really set us up for success," he said.
Family, battle buddies provide support
Even though he is far from home, Freeman stays closely connected with his wife and other loved ones, and is grateful for the technology that allows them to communicate.
"We're able to Skype most times, so the way that I've been really able to cope with this is constant communication," he said.
His family provides tremendous support and gives him a needed boost, especially when he is having a hard day, he said.
In addition to support from family, he relies on his battle buddies from all branches of the U.S. military, and members of the International Security Assistance Force. Everyone looks out for each other, he said.
"It's hard to be away from family," he said. "But the people who are here, we've become a family between all the coalition forces."
Communication is key
Maintaining communication with family and battle buddies is important in helping a Soldier stay resilient and connected when deployed, according to Sgt. 1st Class Eric Tobin.
Tobin is a master resilience trainer and operations non-commissioned officer for the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program.
"If you're on mission, you have to keep on doing what you're doing, but I think the Army comes together very well as a team while we are deployed to support each other and just being on the lookout for our battle buddies is important," he said.
The holidays can be especially stressful, whether a Soldier is at home or deployed, Tobin said.
There are things everyone can do to alleviate stress, Tobin said. Just as a battery needs recharging, so does a person, he said. He recommends deliberate, or deep, breathing, or taking a time out.
"Doing deliberate breathing helps your body return to its baseline much faster. You get benefit from that - you feel better, you're mentally more sharp, and that stress sort of bleeds away as you conduct that deliberate breathing," Tobin said.
Other tips include responding in an engaging manner when someone shares good news, and hunting for the good things in life instead of focusing on the negative, Tobin said.
There are benefits to positive emotion, he said, which helps reduce stress and the negative impact that stress has on your body. Physical activity is a great stress reliever too, he said.
"In all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, we forget to take time to really enjoy ourselves," Tobin said.
If someone gets overwhelmed with the stresses of life and the holidays, resources are available, including Army chaplains, behavioral health services on installations, and the Military OneSource resource center, Tobin said.
"Eternally grateful' for service
Cards from school children, visits from Army leaders, and events by celebrities who entertain the troops mean a tremendous amount to deployed Soldiers, Freeman said.
"Seeing cards from kids is one of the greatest things to see," he said. "They're very patriotic. We have cards posted all over [the International Security Assistance Force] that kids, schools, churches, and different organizations have sent us."
Freeman said they are expecting a bundle of cards from children in the elementary school he attended, and the Soldiers are trying to set up a live video feed with the school for when they open the letters.
In addition to the support from home, the people of Afghanistan recognize the service and immense sacrifice of the deployed troops.
"I meet with a lot of the governors and other key leaders and all they can say is how great the job is that we've done here," he said.
"They say "It's sad that you have to be here and miss so many memories at home, so many holidays, birthdays, major life events, but the people of Afghanistan are eternally grateful for what you've been doing here,'" Freeman said.
"It's things like that that really make being away from home just a little bit easier," he said.