Each year, the Kentucky National Guard 206th Engineer Battalion in Owensboro holds a special holiday get together for its soldiers and their families. This year, the event that usually seats anywhere from 300-400 people had a much more intimate feel, since over 150 members of the 206th are currently deployed to the Middle East leaving their families to celebrate this season without their presence.
“It surprised me to see how many people are showing up,” said Specialist Stephen Gordon, FRG (Family Readiness Group) coordinator for the battalion. “It’s good to see everyone coming to support the soldiers — it’s really heartwarming.”
For the past three years, members of Kentucky Remembers, along with local volunteers, have worked to decorate the armory and request donations of food and toys in order to show their appreciation for the soldiers and their families. Every soldier’s child from newborn to age 18 was able to choose 10 small, unwrapped toys, a special Battalion Buddy bear from Operation Gratitude, a book and a wrapped toy from Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.
“The Owensboro community really showed up and it’s a blessing — it really is,” Gordon said.
While the 22 members of the Kentucky National Guard rear detachment were present with their family members, there was a call put out across the state inviting the family members of those who are currently deployed. Nearly 150 people filled the large room for a holiday meal donated by individuals and local businesses, as children played with and unwrapped toys and had their photos taken with Santa.
This was the first deployment for Sergeant Jakayla Gilbert-Sampson and her wife Ashley. Ashley attended Family Day with their two girls, Addlynn, age 3, and Jahdiya, age 1 and a half, and said just being in the very building where they had to say goodbye five months ago was difficult.
“I felt nauseous and a little upset, to be honest,” Ashley said. “This is where we left her when she left.”
Ashley said the deployment has been hardest on Addlynn as she has a special bond with Jakayla, who she refers to as “Momma J.” Addlynn even has a special plaque that displays two different maps, one where she lives, and one that shows how far away Momma J is.
The family also uses a special app to talk and text as often as they can.
“When the girls Facetime with her, they get really excited when they see her,” Ashley said. “When she told me she was taking this position, I never thought she would deploy. If I could trade places with her I would.”
Ashley Herrin, the wife of CW2 Robert Herrin, and their three girls are experiencing their second deployment as a family. However, this is Robert’s first deployment since their 5-year-old son Brantley was born.
“I just wish my daddy was here,” Brantley said. “Sometimes we’d play Legos together and build houses. When he gets home, I’ll tell him I hope he don’t get hurt in war.”
Staff Sergeant Matthew Winder will be spending this Christmas away from his family, including his wife Taryn and 3-year-old daughter Isla. When the Daviess County Public Schools requested names of soldiers earlier this year in order to assemble care packages, Matthew had not yet submitted his name. So VFW Post 696 adopted Matthew and his family to support and look after while he is away. On Sunday morning, members of Post 696 got down on the floor and played with Isla and took photos of her with Santa as if she were one of their own.
Matthew’s parents attended the event as well and said that worrying about your child is something that seldom goes away.
“You worry every day — that this could be the call,” said Matthew’s stepmother Kassie Winder.
Former Marine and Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain addressed the soldiers and their families before the meal offering words of encouragement, hoping to help put their minds at ease.
“Please know that while your loved ones are deployed, they take the prayers of the entire community with them,” Cain said.