Opening gifts on Christmas morning is truly the highlight of the holiday season for most families in the U.S. For the families. But for loved ones of of first responders and those on military deployment, an important family member is missing.
This is especially true for two Winnebago County families who have spent several Christmases separated from their loved ones.
Nate Koch of Roscoe was just 19 when he spent Thanksgiving 2015 away from home as a Specialist in the U.S. Army stationed in Alaska. He said that spending his first major holiday without family around was difficult but alternate plans helped the transition.
“A lot of people do get lonely; but with being in the Army everyone around you becomes your family,” he said. “I spent most of my time with my friends and some of the supervisors opened their homes to us as well.”
Nate added that many of the veterans living nearby also invited soldiers from his base for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I cried a lot. I still do. I cried about everything during the first year that Nate was gone,” said Lisa Baney-Koch, Nate’s mother.
“It was especially difficult; hearing about possible deployments and having him two plane rides away in Alaska.”
To ease Nate’s loneliness and help the family cope with having a loved one so far away, the Kochs have spent time with Nate in Alaska.
These family treks north have kept Nate in close contact with his daughter, two-year-old Coraline.
“We count down the months now until he is done and if he decides to continue on in the Army, we’ll deal with it,” Lisa said. Nate has two years left on his Army commitment and will be stationed in New York after Christmas, 2018.
“I think it will be much better to have Nate in the lower 48 states where he will only be a long drive away.”
Throughout Nate’s time in the Army, Lisa has found daily comfort in social media groups dedicated to military moms and in babysitting her granddaughter Coraline while Nate is gone.
“There is a huge organization called Military Mama Network (www.militarymamanetwork.org) that has a large social media presence,” she said. “So through this network, my mom and I send care packages once a month to deployed units and we send cards to military families just to show our love and support,” she said.
“It’s also important to find other moms in your community who are in the same position as you are because they get it,” Lisa said. “They get why you see someone at the grocery store and cry.
She also recommended staying busy with other family members, pursuing a new job, hobby, or volunteering in the community to help other military families and veterans.
Better, broader and more reliable communication methods are a huge advantage for present-day military families and their deployed loved ones. During the late 1990s, a Navy ship or Army unit may have had only two or three unreliable mobile phones for use among hundreds of personnel.
But in the last 20 years, rapid high-tech innovations in the mobile phone, internet and social media industries have put a cell phone and its computer capabilities into the hands of nearly every soldier and sailor currently deployed.
Modern-day communication technologies shorten the distance between military families and deployed personnel.
Lisa said that the whole family has used Facetime to video chat with Nate. Video calling, now a widely utilized method of communication, would have been pure science fiction during the Vietnam era when Lisa’s parents were building their relationship.
“When he was in Vietnam, there were practically no communications,” said Jacelyn Baney of her late husband, Tom Baney. “He left in September of 1966 and besides some letters, I really didn’t hear from him until September of 1967. “We had no communication at all for three months, because he was out in the fields. So, we had the Red Cross send him a letter to make sure he was still OK. He wrote back saying that he was fine but that he couldn’t get mail out to us while he was in the field.”
Jacelyn said that letters from Tom used to reach her every six to eight weeks.
“Back then, the only way we could communicate was through letters; there was no other method of communication available to military personnel of the Vietnam era.
“With my grandson, Nate, it’s so nice that we can Facetime with him, talk to him, see him, get texts from him and see his surroundings. It’s just really different from one era to the other.”
It’s not unusual to see one or even two empty places at the table during a holiday dinner with the Ken Ditzler family of northwestern Winnebago County.
This fourth generation law enforcement family has consistently put service over celebration at the holidays.
Starting with Ken’s Father, Rolland Ditzler, who was a Freeport policeman in the 1930s, each generation of the family has worked in or is considering a career in law enforcement.
After serving four years in the United States Navy from 1954 to 1958 and then farming for another seven years, Ken began working for the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department in 1966. The career change was met with support from his wife Lolita.
“Farming was more hazardous than being a cop, according to statistics,” she said.
When the couple’s three children: Linda, Lisa and Kurt were growing up, they came to an understanding about their father’s work and why he might miss family holiday gatherings.
Throughout Ken’s 37 years in law enforcement, his duties ranged from patrolman to detective all the way up to sergeant. After 25 years in the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, he spent 12 years as a federal marshal.
As Ken worked his first Christmas Eve shift, as a patrolman, Lolita prepared dinner for her family and children.
“My Dad wondered how we could celebrate Christmas without Ken, but that was the new life at our house,” Lolita said. “Later on, I was all ready to greet Ken at 11 p.m. when he got home and have a nice quiet evening together. But earlier that night, he had come across a dead body that had been deceased for quite a while. When he got home, he reeked! So, Ken had no interest in a quiet, romantic evening; all he wanted was a good, hot shower and some sleep.”
Job stress from working a patrolman’s beat or going over criminal cases as a detective is all part of police work.
“The 20 mile drive home from work every day helped me get over being mad or upset about situations that happened that day and I tried not to bring that stress home to my family,” Ken said.
After Lisa and then Kurt graduated from high school, each decided to pursue law enforcement careers. Lisa spent her entire career with the Illinois State Police in District 16 which includes Winnebago County. She has worked as a road trooper, a state police instructor and retired from the force as a master sergeant.
Kurt started his career in the Rockford Police Department, then transferred to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department where he served as chief deputy before his retirement. Together, Ken, Lisa and Kurt have logged nearly 100 years of service in law enforcement.
The fact that crime never takes a holiday became real to Kurt during a police call early in his career.
“One Christmas Eve, I got sent out on a domestic call in Rockford,” he said. “I got there and found little kids crying in a corner, the Christmas tree knocked over and presents strewn about the living room. The couple was screaming and yelling at each other and I just thought, ‘It’s Christmas, can’t anyone get along for a couple of days?’ This was an eye opening experience to see how some people live and what they consider a normal household.”
Kurt was already a policeman when he married his wife Sandy 27 years ago.
“It takes a strong, devoted woman to marry a cop. I have relied on her love and support as my job responsibilities increased through my career,” he said. “She has filled in for me with the kids when I couldn’t be there. Sandy is an amazing mother who has guided our kids into becoming successful adults.”
Kurt and Sandy have two adult children, Katelyn, a second year law student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and Jacob, a recent graduate of the University of Dubuque who is seriously considering a career in law enforcement.
Just as Kurt and his sisters adapted to having their father work on holidays; so did Katelyn and Jacob. “In a family of cops, each generation comes to understand holiday work and shift work as normal,” Kurt said.
“When you’re little, you want everybody there for Christmas, because that’s the normal thing, but normal for us became scheduling the holidays around our work,” Lisa said. “My Mom was the one who really had to do the adjusting by keeping track of my Dad’s schedule, my schedule and my brother’s schedule. Through the years, we found a happy medium and made it work.”
Sacrificing time with her family to keep other families safe during holiday travel was part of Lisa’s job as a District 16 road trooper.
“There is a lot more traffic on the roads during Thanksgiving and Christmas and I always hoped that I wouldn’t have to handle a crash,” she said. “People seem to think that when a trooper pulls them over for speeding during the holidays, it’s a free pass.”
“I had lots of Dads, who were driving their family’s car, get upset with me for writing a ticket and I would tell them, ‘I do not want this to be the holiday that you have an accident and kill your family.’ This made people stop and slow down. I think it got the point across,” she said.
As a single career woman, Lisa would often work holidays for her colleagues who were married with young children.
“For me, I only needed either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day off, not both. So, if a fellow officer was working both days, I would swap a non-holiday with him and take one of his holiday shifts so that he could be home with his wife and kids. That way, we could each enjoy Christmas with our families.”
Sharing, sacrifice and compromise are elements that all families have to consider in planning Christmas activities. This is especially true for the Koch and Ditzler families who have sacrificed their holidays to serve and protect others.
“I am very, very proud of my family; for how they have come along through their careers in law enforcement, and for all the support from Lolita,” Ken said.
“I give my wife a lot of credit. All the years I worked in the sheriff’s department…Lolita raised the kids and did an excellent job of managing things when I wasn’t here. She did a great job; she did it right.”