- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

RICHMOND — Army Pvt. Jasiri Kirkland has laced up his combat boots many times, but he recently put on ice skates for the first time, knowing that, either way, his fellow soldiers would never leave him behind.

“I had my falls, but I had my battle buddy to help,” Pvt. Kirkland, 25, said after an outing with fellow soldiers to an ice-skating rink in Richmond.

Pvt. Kirkland is among about 1,700 soldiers who didn’t go home from one of the Army’s 16 training bases during the service’s two-week annual holiday exodus. About 1 percent of the 78,000 soldiers in training typically stay behind.

But soldiers such as Pvt. Kirkland, who gave up his holiday leave to spend a month later this winter with his 18-month-old son, are kept in high spirits by going ice skating, bowling, to a hockey game and to special holiday meals with people in the community.

“This is the first time being away from him for this long,” Pvt. Kirkland, of Columbus, Ga., who is training at Fort Lee in Petersburg, about 25 miles south of Richmond, said of his young son. “It’s very difficult. This is the most happy time of the year, but I’m staying here for a good reason.”

The Army is the only military service that allows all of its soldiers in training to go home for the holiday season. The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps do not shut down basic training, but do allow students in technical schools to go home.

“Christmas is probably one of the happiest times of the year and also probably [is] going to be one of the more depressing times of the year if you’re not with your family and friends,” said Capt. Dhramen Singh, commander for headquarters and headquarters company for the 244th Quartermaster Battalion at Fort Lee.

Capt. Singh, who spent the past two holiday seasons organizing events for the soldiers, said the program is important to keep up morale for about 65 soldiers who stayed behind this year.

“Being part of the U.S. Army is being part of a family,” he said. “The Army is a huge organization, but at the ground level, we do care for every soldier.”

On most bases, soldiers do some work from about 8 a.m. until noon and then are on their own or participate in organized events. Most of the costs for the entertainment is donated, and other costs are covered by Army Morale Welfare Recreation funding.

“It’s so much fun. We have all these activities, so it’s not bad at all,” said Pvt. Sonya Hodges, 33, of Decatur, Ill., who is taking her leave at a later date. “They’re making sure we enjoy the holidays.”

Others are glad to have a moment to relax from their strictly regimented military life.

“It’s either this or sit down. Sitting is not bad, since we don’t do it often, but this is fun. [The events] build teamwork,” said Pvt. Michael Angelette, 23, adding that he is keeping in constant contact with his family in Oxnard, Calif., during the holidays.

Though the holiday exodus has been going on for years, the Army considered canceling the program three years ago because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Col. Kevin A. Shwedo, director of operations, plans and training for the Army Accessions Command, which oversees training. But he said the time off means soldiers and officers come back rested and ready to focus on training.

The nation’s other military services said they also make sure their members who can’t go home have an enjoyable and rejuvenating holiday season.

Capt. Teresa Ovalle, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps’ Quantico Training and Education Command in Virginia, said the service takes care of its own by inviting those who may not be able to get home for the holidays to join in the festivities of officers and other service members.

About 1,000 recruits in the final stages of training at Naval Station Great Lakes spent Christmas with families and organizations in the Chicago area, said Chief Bruce Moody, a spokesman for Naval Service Training Command.

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