Making Christmas memories while ensuring mission success

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Most holidays celebrated in the U.S. focus on family time in some shape or fashion, but perhaps, none is as iconic as Christmas.

Whether it involves decorating a tree or house with lights, watching countless Christmas movies or enjoying a baked ham, every family has their own tradition, even if it’s just being a scrooge.

Military members often sacrifice family time to answer the nation’s call. This day to day sacrifice becomes even more evident during key times such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

Leaders across the Air Force work diligently to make sure Airmen get to spend time with their families. Major commands typically issue family down days around significant holidays. While most Airmen are not required to work these days, others, in critical positions, man their posts throughout the holidays.

Here are some of their stories:

Senior Airman Jason Piol, 436th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection journeyman, said he grew up in a military family in Federal Way, Washington. Every year they would celebrate Christmas in the typical American fashion: going to parties, opening presents, watching Christmas movies and spending time with family.

After years as an Air Force dependent, Piol enlisted and set out along his own Air Force career.

“So far, I’ve only had one year when I had Christmas off, and that was right after I got to my first base,” Piol said. “I was brand new. I had just gotten there in November, and I didn’t know anyone, so I just stayed in my dorm. I had the holiday off, but I didn’t really do anything.”

Piol, a driver and firetruck operator, said he’s looking forward to this Christmas. Even though he will be working, he’s planning on spending time with both of his families.

“My mom and sister are flying down,” Piol said. “This is the first time I’ve had family come visit me. I told them beforehand I’m going to be working, but we’re going to celebrate on Christmas Eve. We’ll wake up as if it were Christmas, open presents and probably have a big dinner. I know it’s not Christmas, but it will be for me, and it’ll be my first time having family over. Then, the next morning, I’ll get to celebrate Christmas with my second family.”

Piol said fire departments can’t close down for holidays. Firefighters stand vigilant 24-hours a day, holiday or not, ready to protect and safeguard the lives and property under their care.

“If there’s an emergency, we’re here to take care of that,” Piol said. “You never know what’s going to happen on any given day. That’s part of our job, to be ready for anything. No matter what holiday it is, or whether other people are working or not, for us, it’s just another day.”

The fire department family makes the best of what could be an inconvenient situation for most.

“For us, working doesn’t mean we have to be away from our families,” Piol said. I don’t mind working my fourth straight Christmas. I don’t mind it because, this is literally my family away from my family. We’re so close here, it’s just like spending time with family.”

Each year members of the fire department prepare a feast. Family members come to spend time with the extended firefighting family. Even off-duty Airmen come in to celebrate.

When Piol was asked about advice he would give to those with Christmas off, he said, “enjoy your time off. Be grateful for the opportunity you have to spend time with your families. I envy you in a way, but at the same time, I have my family here.”

Piol gave this advice to those who are working on Christmas.

“It is what you make it,” Piol said. “Just know that the people you’re working with are going through the same thing. You all might as well make the best of it and have fun. Don’t be down, the mission does come first, but it’s just another day, and your family is going to be there for you. The family doesn’t make the holiday, you do.”

Airman 1st Class Kahlil Davidson, 436th Force Support Squadron food services technician, is spending his first Active Duty Christmas at the dining facility.

Hailing from Chicago, Illinois, Davidson said he has spent every Christmas with his family.

“Just like any other family, we all came together, talked, ate, laughed, enjoyed a meal and had fun,” Davidson said. “This Christmas isn’t going to be any different for me, other than not getting presents, but that’s ok. I enjoy my Air Force brothers and sisters, so that’ll be fun.”

The dining facility must remain open to feed the Airmen who stay here for the holidays.

“Food brings people together,” Davidson said. “I chose this job because I like to see the smiles on people’s faces when they come through my line. That’s how I want to spend my Christmas, by helping to bring smiles to faces.”

Davidson has only been at Dover AFB for about 5 weeks, but he’s already volunteered to work his second holiday.

“I worked this past Thanksgiving, and that was a lot of fun,” he said. “I got to hang out and serve with some of our top leaders. I got to meet everyone. We all got to chat and laugh. Even though it wasn’t a day off, it felt like one. I’d imagine that’s what working on Christmas is going to be like.”

He plans to make the best of the holiday.

“I’m planning on celebrating Christmas right here,” Davidson said. “I’m going to wake up Christmas day. I’ll be here around 4:45 a.m. behind my grill spreading Christmas cheer to my Air Force family. I definitely will enjoy it. I don’t know about anyone else. I just hope I can bring smiles to my brothers’ and sisters’ faces.”

When Davidson was asked about advice he would give to those with Christmas off, he said, “have fun and enjoy the time you get to spend with your family. Take every last minute and make the best of it. Don’t miss out on time with your second family though.”

Davidson gave this advice to those who are working on Christmas.

“It’s not a bad thing to work on the holidays,” Davidson said. “It is what you make it. If you think it’s going to be horrible, then it definitely will be. You need to take the best of your situation and make it your own. Make it as fun as you can make it. Everything is awesome but a bad attitude.”

Senior Airman Thomas Ozman, 436th Airlift Wing Command Post controller is planning on working his first Christmas this year.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take leave every year to see my family for Christmas, catch up with them and enjoy a big dinner,” Ozman said. “I’m from Cambridge, Maryland, so it’s not very hard to see my family. Since I’m a single Airman, and I’m so close to home, I was more than happy to take the shift and give someone else a chance to spend the holiday with their family.”

Coming from a large family with three brothers and three sisters, Ozman’s typical Christmas included a gift exchange, dinner and an opportune time to spend time with family members who have moved away.

“I’m giving up some time with family by working on Christmas, but no more than anybody else,” Ozman said. “Since I’m a single Airman and I’m so close to home, I was more than happy to take the shift and give someone else a chance to spend the holiday with their family.”

Command post Airmen are responsible for tracking all missions arriving at and departing from the installation. They also coordinate with units on base and higher headquarters and disseminate important information to the base populous, when needed.

“The mission doesn’t stop during the holidays, so we can’t just take the day off,” Ozman said. “Anything that were to happen on base would still need to be reported. That’s not something that can just be put off until Monday morning. I’m a strong believer in loving what I do. I believe in what we do in the Air Force, and I’m very happy to keep the mission going, even on Christmas.”

When Ozman was asked about advice he would give to those with Christmas off, he said, “enjoy it. There is a chance that you might not be able to make one or two [holidays] in a row. It’s definitely worth enjoying the time when you have it.”

Ozman gave this advice to those who are working on Christmas.

“Stay positive,” he said. “Most people aren’t afforded the opportunity to have such a great job that will still pay you whether you’re sick or not.”

Staff Sgt. Steven Marking, 436th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control watch supervisor Radar Approach Control has been in the Air Force for 7 years. This will be his second time working Christmas.

“When I was a kid, we used to all wake up and run straight to the Christmas tree,” said the McKinney, Texas, native. “We’d have a ham and black-eyed peas for dinner. We’d always watch the traditional movies, like ‘Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman.’ My husband watches Christmas movies like crazy. We started the day after Thanksgiving.”

Marking said he is in a unique position though, as his husband works in the air traffic control tower. They both have the same shift too, so they were able to plan out their holiday around work.

“We’ve already talked about it,” Marking said. “We wake up at 5 a.m. to get here at 6:45, we’ll just come to work and do the Christmas thing when we get home. We might do the stockings before we come to work, but we’ll save the presents for after.
If we didn’t have to work, we’d probably sleep in, watch a couple Christmas movies, drink some hot chocolate and open presents.”

The air traffic control complex, comprised of the tower and RAPCON, is responsible for safe aircraft transportation through 1,000 square miles of airspace surrounding Dover AFB.

“Typically, holiday operations are limited, but we have an important job,” Marking said. “Even if we don’t have a lot going on, we’re here in case something does go wrong. We can’t just close down.”

Marking added that working Christmas isn’t nearly as hard as being separated.

“Last year, my husband was in England, so we had to do presents over facetime,” Marking said. “It was an experience. I’ve never done that before. We were opening presents while we were thousands of miles apart, but we made it happen.”

When Marking was asked about advice he would give to those with Christmas off, he said, “enjoy your break. You can come in and celebrate with us if you’d like, but I encourage you to call your family or go out and spend time with the people you care about and just enjoy Christmas.”

Marking gave this advice to those who are working on Christmas.

“I consider this to be my air traffic family,” Marking said. “We’re all here for each other. I don’t think of it as work, it’s spending family time. If you feel like you’re far away from home and not able to spend time with your families, well, we’re here for you. You can come in and hang out with us. You can celebrate Christmas at work.”

Airman 1st Class Jake Goff, 436th Security Forces Squadron defender will celebrate his one-year enlistment anniversary in January. While this is his first Christmas in the military, it’s not the first time he’s worked through the holidays.

“We did the traditional Christmas things: open presents, stocking stuffers, a family meal,” Goff said. “My family likes to keep the religious focus and remember the original meaning of Christmas too. For us, it was pretty much all about spending time with family and having fun.”

The Palmdale, California, native said he knew this was a possibility when he enlisted.

“I think just being in the military in general you sacrifice,” Goff said. “It’s just what you do. Do I feel like I’m giving something up by working Christmas? Yes, but I wouldn’t really have it any other way. It’s what I signed up for.”

Security Forces members are responsible for maintaining security on the installation and protecting valuable resources and locations.

“If we didn’t have to work one day, the base wouldn’t be secure,” said Goff. “Really anything could happen. Who knows what the implications could be. Somebody has to do it. If not me, it’d be someone else. Personally, I don’t enjoy watching other people give things up, so I have absolutely no problem pulling my weight.”

He may be working, but that isn’t stopping him from celebrating.

“I plan on calling home and talking to my family,” Goff said. “I’m going to spend some time with them and just enjoy the day. I’ll probably celebrate it early with my girlfriend. For me, it’s not about a certain day. Christmas can be whenever you make it, so I’ll probably celebrate it a little bit early and it won’t even seem like I’m working Christmas.”

When Goff was asked about advice he would give to those with Christmas off, he said, “don’t waste it. We take a lot for granted, but don’t waste the time you have off. You never know if this’ll be your last holiday off, or your last holiday in general. Enjoy it.”

Goff gave this advice to those who are working on Christmas.

“Keep your head up,” said Goff. “It is what it is. Your circumstances don’t determine your life. It is what you make it, so make the most of it, and know you’re doing good work.”

Whether you’re working over the holidays or enjoying some time off, make the most of it.

“The holidays are a time to reflect on our blessings, spend time with family and friends, take a break from the stresses of everyday life and come back with renewed hope for the coming year,” said Chief Master Sgt. Sarah Sparks, 436th Airlift Wing command chief. “While you are enjoying holiday meals around the table with family and friends and opening gifts under the tree, I encourage you to think about all our Airmen who aren’t able to. Many of our Dover Airmen are deployed across the globe, stationed far from home or manning critical positions to make sure our mission continues and our families and this nation stays safe. Happy Holidays! #makememories!”