He first appeared to us as a smiling face on a tablet- our deployed serviceman and Dad in the British Army's Christmas video ‘… love, Grace’. Real soldier Sergeant Karl Atherton, of the Army Air Corps, portrays all the men and women deployed overseas and in the UK over Christmas, away from their families.
Speaking of his role Sergeant (Sgt) Karl, an Apache Ammunition Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO), said: “I had a pretty small part, but it was really interesting to see how something like this gets pieced together, and to meet the crews. I know our daughter absolutely loved it!”
Wattisham-based Sgt Karl and his wife Corporal Fernanda Atherton, both know what it’s like to be separated by long deployments. Karl has served in Afghanistan three times and travelled to America, Oman, Germany and Estonia on exercise.
He says the support of his unit for deployed troops and military families is excellent. So, what do our soldiers get up to when they’re away at Christmas?
Gifts, food and messages from home
They may be thousands of miles away from friends and family, but British troops keep their spirits high with preparation for Christmas in full flow around the various theatres of operation, including donning Christmas jumpers and putting up decorations (where allowed).
Not everyone will have the same Christmas experience, as operations and taskings take precedence, but everyone should get a Christmas dinner, even if it cannot be on the 25th itself: shout out to the Army chefs. All personnel in theatre should receive a parcel, whether it’s come from loved ones or charities like Aaron Speke Soldier Stockings.
Receiving parcels from family when you’re far from home brings that little bit of home to whichever corner of the world the soldier is deployed to. It’s British Forces Post Office’s (BFPO) busiest time of year, flying thousands of parcels around the world.
If you want your parcel to reach your loved one in time for Christmas, you have until Tuesday, 21 December first class, or Saturday 18 December second class, so get posting! Full details are published here.
Once upon a time, blueys (blue airmail letters) were the favoured method of communication between families, but thanks to advances in technology, people can video message each other between duties, just like the Athertons in our Christmas film.
Army Chaplains cooking up food for the soul
Being away from home for long periods is difficult at any time, but especially at Christmas. Though there are still patrols to be done, training to be carried out and peace to be kept, Padres bring Christmas to the soldiers by providing something tangible and familiar, as they know their loved ones will also be sharing worship, hospitality and fellowship at home.
In many theatres of operation around the world, Christmas Eve will see a Chaplaincy-led Carol service followed by a Midnight Mass service offering a more reflective time for those who wish to attend. Christmas Day will start with Christmas Stockings being handed out to the soldiers, more Carol singing, then a Christmas Day dinner served by the Officers, Warrant Officers and SNCOs. It's is a tradition going back many years, particularly for soldiers deployed overseas.
Christmas is a season of ‘hope’ and whether you are a person of faith or not, that hope shines into our lives.
Where can soldiers find support while deployed?
It is a time of reflection and a time for personnel to call on their colleagues for support or reach out and offer support. If a soldier is having a crisis over Christmas, we urge them to speak to a friend or colleague or call one of the helplines where someone will be there to listen and advise. There is a host of resources, advice and support linked below.
We understand how difficult these periods can be and the sacrifices that are made by all our personnel.
Every unit has a comprehensive welfare system, which is widely publicised. The network includes the Unit Welfare Officer, Chaplain and medical staff.
Personnel also have access to the secondary welfare support through the Army Welfare Service; the Army confidential helpline, Speak Out, and the Samaritans helpline. Full details on the Ask for Help page.