"I'd like my family to come together," a young girl told Santa Claus when asked what she wants for Christmas this year.
Her sentiment was shared by many children in the DC-area today at the USO and Health Net's annual holiday party for children from military families. Many of the children who attended the party today have to face the heartbreaking reality of having one parent who is deployed and unable to come home for the holidays this year.
The insurance company, Health Net, puts on the party every year, in lieu of their company's own holiday party. The proceeds which once hosted the office party now go toward turning a community center in Ft. Myer, VA today into a winter wonderland, complete with a Santa and Mrs, Claus, a moon bounce, face painting, crafts and karaoke - all so the children could get into the holiday spirit, with or without both of their parents.
For many the party today was a welcome distraction.
"It's difficult when their gone because you're trying to explain to the kids why they are not going to be there for Christmas morning," Laurie Leder, a military spouse from Ft. Belvoir, VA said today and whose family has faced many holidays without her husband, "it's nice to have event to go to and keep you busy when they are gone because it keeps your mind off of it."
For others about to deploy, it was an early gift.
Such was the case for Cpt. AP Phillips who brought his two sons to the event today but will leave soon for a deployment in Afghanistan.
"I'm just trying to remember. This will hit me more --ask me if you can in July or August when I'm over there, thinking back to here in November, 1st of December," Phillips said, "right now I'm creating it, but I'll reflect on it later on, six months from now."
There are 1.9 million children, ranging in ages from newborn to 18 years old, who are the children of the military 1.3 million of whom are school-aged. Of those military children, 765,000 have Active duty parents, and more than 700,000 military children have experienced the deployment of at least one parent.
Parents said events like today's help their children cope and understand their deployment much better and with a little extra holiday cheer.
"The kids get to interact with other kids," Rhosunda Stuart from DC says, "they understand mommy and daddy aren't the only ones that are going through it. There are other mommy and daddies going through it as well."