Family of veterans recalls Christmases spent apart

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Tiffany Houchim of Jasper, left, and her grandmother, Beverly Houchim of Petersburg, added dog tag ornaments to a Christmas tree decorated by the Freyberger and Fromme families at the grand opening of the "Christmas with Our Veterans" themed Festival of Trees at the Dubois County Museum in Jasper on Thursday. A sign next to the tree invited people to write their loved ones who are currently serving or have previously served on identification tag ornaments to add to the tree.


JASPER — Steve and Darlene Merkley and their son, Tom, aren’t strangers to military deployments over the holidays.

Steve and Darlene spent the first Christmas of their marriage apart during the Vietnam War. Then, after 9/11, the family spent three Christmases apart during Darlene and Tom’s deployments. The St. Anthony family shared their experiences Thursday evening during the opening of the Dubois County Museum’s Festival of Trees, an annual exhibit of Christmas trees decorated by local families and organizations. The trees will be on display at the museum through December.

This year’s festival theme is “Christmas With Our Veterans.” Ray Larkin shared about his experience in the Korean War, and Rafe Schaefer read his poem “Christmas Trees.” Thursday’s opening served as a tribute to Dubois County’s many soldiers, past and present.

Steve Merkley remembers Christmas 1971 being depressing. He was in Vietnam fighting in the Vietnam War while his new wife, Darlene, was spending Christmas home from Indiana State University with their family. The couple had married earlier that year when they found out Steve had been drafted and would be deploying. Darlene insisted they get married before he left. Steve, however, wanted to wait because he didn’t want Darlene to become a war widow.

“Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way,” Steve told a crowd of about 100 Thursday evening.

The couple kept in touch throughout Steve’s deployment by writing letters. They wrote each other every day, Darlene recalled, and she tried to keep her letters upbeat, telling Steve about her daily life at college. When Christmas rolled around, she sent him photos of the gifts she and others bought him — a coffee maker and several tools that he still has.

But Steve’s gift to Darlene is standout.

He decided to get Darlene a handmade Vietnamese dress for Christmas. He got her dress size and passed it on to the dressmaker, who pointed out that that was an American size, not a Vietnamese one. The dressmaker would need Darlene’s measurements.

Patriotic and military themed Christmas trees were displayed at the grand opening of the "Christmas with Our Veterans" themed Festival of Trees at the Dubois County Museum in Jasper on Thursday.

“Well, we weren’t married that long,” Steve joked.

Steve gave his best guesses, and sure enough, the dress fit. Darlene sent him a photo of her wearing it, and she wore it again when they reunited after his deployment. She hasn’t worn it since, treating it instead as a treasured souvenir. It’s now on display behind the Christmas tree the Merkleys decorated for the Festival of Trees.

Fast forward 31 years. It’s 2002 and the U.S. is preparing to invade Iraq in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Steve and Darlene’s son, Tom, is in the Army National Guard, and his unit is on alert. He could deploy anytime.
Like his parents decades before, Tom and his then fiancee, Jennifer, moved their wedding up so they could be
married before Tom left. Tom deployed just weeks after their Oct. 26 wedding for a year at Camp Victory, Iraq.

At the time, U.S. forces were still setting up the infrastructure on the ground, so Tom and Jennifer communicated mostly through letters, just as Steve and Darlene had done.

Fortunately, Tom was able to call Jennifer on their anniversary. He remembers being on the phone with her just as the flowers he ordered for her arrived. When the holidays rolled around, though, Tom gave up calling home and took guard duty so the soldiers he commanded could talk to their families instead.   

“That’s kind of your responsibility as a leader,” he said. “If you take care of your troops, they’ll take care of you.”

Tom remembers Christmas Eve being particularly nerve-wracking. From his place in the guard tower he could see a red light from the top of a nearby mosque blinking Morse code. He knew the enemy was using the mosque to communicate, but the rules of war protect the mosque as a religious place. Tom spent the night wondering if an attack was imminent.

“There’s not much you can do except pray,” he said.

Tom returned home a couple months later, just before Valentine’s Day in  2004. In the years since his first deployment, he has deployed another time, and Jennifer passed away from cancer five years ago. Now, after almost 23 years in the National Guard, Tom’s ready to retire.

Not all the Merkleys deployed overseas, however, Darlene served several years in the Army Reserve as a nurse. In 2006, she was called on to deploy, but rather than being shipped overseas, she served a year and a half at the army hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the time, the army called on older nurses like Darlene to serve in state-side hospitals so the younger nurses— the ones just out of school, as Darlene described them — could go to the combat zones.

Darlene’s main goal during her deployment was to maintain some sense of normalcy. When the holidays came, she decorated her apartment, and she talked to Steve on the phone every night.  Her deployment, she pointed out, was different from Steve’s deployment to Vietnam or Tom’s to Iraq.

Of all the deployments the Merkleys experienced, Darlene said Tom’s deployments were the most stressful.

“I always felt (Steve) would come back,” she said. “As you get older, things change.”

With Tom preparing to retire from the National Guard, hopefully the Merkleys have spent their last Christmas apart.

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