For most families, Thanksgiving dinner is a time for everyone to gather around a table full of wonderful food, every seat filled with a loved one, every person safe and sound at home.
For two local families, one seat at each table will be empty, a reminder of a serviceman fulfilling a duty to his government overseas, helping those who need it most.
Franklin Sherman Elementary School teachers Linda Ristig and Betty Bruce both have a son stationed somewhere in the Middle East: Christopher Ristig is a special units soldier in the Army, and Warren Bruce is a pilot for the Marine Corps.
“There’s definitely a void for the holidays,” said Bruce, of Warren being overseas and unable to come home for Thanksgiving.
“The family’s not complete in the physical sense, but there’s that invisible connection wherever you go,” Ristig said.
Both mothers said they’re incredibly proud of their sons and the jobs they’re doing overseas, despite how difficult it is for the family at home.
“We mothers don’t understand it,” Bruce said. “He volunteered to go because he felt the guys over there needed him. Those were his exact words, ‘They need me there, Mom,’” she said.
“There’s a deep sense of commitment because those are our children that have taken on this responsibility to serve,” Ristig said.
Warren Bruce was not the type of little boy that played with GI Joes constantly, his mother said. “I have no idea how he got interested in the military,” she said. Warren is an F-A 18 pilot for the Marine Corps. He first enlisted as a junior in high school, spending his summer in camp, and went to Parris Island, S.C., for training after graduating from high school. In order to become a pilot, he had to graduate from college, so he earned a degree in business and finance from James Madison University.
“Once a month, he’d go to Andrews Air Force Base and was in charge of ordinance, which is explosives,” Bruce said. “He’d talk with the pilots and ended up taking a lifeguard job to pay for flying lessons when he decided that’s what he wanted to do.”
THE FIRST TIME HE TOOK his pilot’s exam, he missed it by eight points, she said, so he recommitted himself to his goal, and when he took the test again, he tripled his score.
“That speaks volumes about his dedication,” she said.
Chris Ristig, on the other hand, always had an interest in the Army, his mother said, but his parents never thought this would be his career choice.
“My husband and I were resolute that this was his decision, regardless of what we had in mind for him,” she said. “When I ask him if it’s an important thing we’re doing over there, he says that those people lived in fear (in Iraq and Afghanistan), their standard of living was so low,” she said.
Ristig and her family received the best possible call under the circumstances from their son a few weeks ago, when he was injured in a land mine accident.
“They had been traveling in an armored Humvee, and they hit a land mine,” she said. “Christopher was thrown 20 feet from the blast and had a severe concussion and needed some stitches in his arm and chin.”
“The Humvee saved his life,” she said. “A friend of his was medevac’d to Germany, and Chris has no idea how he’s doing or if he’ll come back.”
Because of his injury, however, Chris was able to arrange a phone call the next night to wish his youngest brother, Brian, a happy birthday.
It wasn’t the only time Chris’ unit was in danger, however: A few weeks earlier, while traveling through the Afghanistan mountains, his unit was ambushed, and one of his fellow soldiers was shot.
“Chris went back for him,” Ristig said. “Their motto is ‘Leave No One Behind,’ so he went back to get him, under fire. He’ll earn either a bronze or silver star for that.”
When she found out about the Humvee accident, Ristig said not being able to call her son or hop on a flight to see him was very difficult.
“I wrote a six-page letter to him during my lunch break the next day,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to talk to him that night, and just hearing his voice reassured me that all was well.”
With their sons so far away and unable to tell their families everything that’s going on or what they’re doing, the women have learned to appreciate the moment they live in.
“You learn to give your full attention to the moment you’re in and the person you’re with at that moment because you don’t know what’ll happen in the next,” Bruce said. “It’s a sacred moment.”
“You start to count the small blessings in life,” Ristig added. “Both of us know how fortunate we are that we’ve heard from our children, but we also know that there are people whose children won’t be coming home.”
Being able to talk about their sons helps as well.
“WHEN YOU SHARE THE BURDEN, you lighten it,” said Ristig. “Every time someone strikes up a conversation with me about Chris, he’s right here with me. The connection with him is in the spirit.”
“Every time someone talks about your child, you feel their presence,” Bruce agreed. “There’s that indefinable connection between a mother an child. There’s something very spiritual about that.”
Chris’ father, Paul Ristig, is comforted by the knowledge that Chris wears a medal that he gave him before shipping off to Iraq, which he’s never taken off.
“It was my medal during my service in the Merchant Marines,” he said. “He calls it his good luck charm. He wrote in a letter once that the medal has brought him through many situations.”
Paul Ristig is able to look back at his baseball coaching experience and how what that taught him helps him to be strong during his son’s deployment.
“Coaching instills character in kids,” he said. “Chris has always been persistent in what he’s done, and I know he’ll do the best he can while he’s there.”
The family is hoping that he’ll get his mid-term leave to come home during the Christmas holidays.
“They’re excited about coming home, walking through the terminal to meet with your family, but then you’re doing a countdown once you get here, how many days you have left,” he said. “They live moment to moment over there.”
Phone calls are more difficult than most people would expect, Ristig said, because there’s “not a lot to talk about on the phone. He can’t give any details or specifics about what he’s doing, so I keep a list of things on my desk to tell him about things going on at home.
“I send him copies of the newspapers, save up two weeks of sports pages, and send him a Mustang magazine,” he said, to cheer Chris up with his favorite car. “He passes it all on to the other guys when he’s done with them. It fills up the time.”
The Ristigs have a yellow ribbon tied around their magnolia tree, which their son will take down when he’s home for good, along with a flag on the front porch that used to fly over the school where Paul Ristig taught. “The flag is kind of tattered, but he’ll take it down when he comes home. That’s his,” he said.
But the family does not worry about his safety. “Worrying isn’t going to help him with anything. You’ve got to stay positive. He’s doing what he felt was important to do, and I’m proud of what he did,” he said.
WARREN BRUCE’S WIFE, CHRISSY, said the hardest time for her is right after hanging up the phone when he calls.
“That’s when it hits that he’s not here, he’s not coming home right away,” she said, from their San Diego home on Miramar Marine Corps base.
The couple has been married for a little over a year. “He actually left three weeks before our first wedding anniversary,” she said. “It doesn’t hit you for the first two or three months. Then you realize, this is my life for the next few months. We don’t share things any more, we can’t go on dates anymore. It’s an adjustment.”
Living on a base, there’s a lot of support from the other families who are going through the same situation, she said.
“The people on the base become your family,” she said. “You’re not alone, but there is a lot of time by yourself.
Talking to her husband on the phone is something of a bittersweet experience.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s the highest high when he’s on the phone, but the lowest low when we hang up. But you don’t think about it. Every day is a day closer to when he comes home. I have a countdown going everywhere,” she said.
Bruce hopes that her husband will be coming home in March, about seven months after his deployment.
“It’s feasible for him to be gone for around six months out of each year for the next six years,” she said. “The nice part is the jets have to be worked on, and he has to do training, which can only be done from the base,” she said. “He has to come home for training.”
Her dad, a former Marine, was thrilled that she married into the military. “He’s so excited we brought a Marine into the family,” she said with a laugh.
“My mom’s been the biggest help,” she said. “I call her sometimes and say I can’t make it through the day, and she talks me through it. It helps that she’s been through it, and she went through it with kids.
“He feels he’s doing a good thing over there, and he’s proud to be there,” she said of her husband. “This is our first run through a deployment, and I wasn’t sure how things would go, and the not knowing is much worse than the day to day living it. It helps them to know you’re OK back home.”
They are planning a trip to Monterey, Calif., when he gets home, which is where they were married. “We’ll spend a week there and then fly back to Virginia for a week,” she said. Although they’re not certain how long he’ll be home, the family is already planning a party for his homecoming.
“We’re hoping he’ll be home for a few months before he’s gone again,” she said. “He’ll be joining another squadron when he comes home, and they’re already deployed, so there’s no telling how long he’ll be home.”
Until then, the families take every day in stride, look forward to every phone call and letter, and trust that their sons are doing their best every day, staying as safe as possible.