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The best Christmas surprise… until we meet again, Grace

Christmas for many families is a time of coming together to share in the joy of the holidays. However, for a lot of military families, one key member of the household will be deployed and away from home.

In recognition of our military families who support their service person all-year round, and especially at Christmas the British Army has released their annual film, featuring a real military family on Christmas Day, and it’s a tearjerker.

Set to a soundtrack that was written and performed by an Army musician, we first see daughter Grace on Christmas Eve gathering up all the elements needed to recreate a life-size version of her dad, in uniform and adorned with festive decorations and a Santa hat, to surprise her mum on Christmas morning.

The family dog is also getting into the festive spirit with a set of antlers on his head, and providing much-needed support to the young girl, who hasn’t seen her dad for several months.

As the sun rises on Christmas Day and the family gathers next to the tree, the surprise is revealed when the daughter steps aside to reveal her dad’s face lighting up an electronic tablet on the virtual soldier figure. Mum and dad are both clearly emotional to see each other and to be able to share in the moment.

Together they unwrap their presents with mum, dad and daughter brought together by the magic of technology and some creative chair dressing. Despite the thousands of miles between the family, they were able to share a moment together.

The ‘actors’ in the film are both real serving soldiers, Sergeant Karl Atherton, of the Army Air Corps, and Corporal (Cpl) Fernanda Atherton, Royal Army Dental Corps, and their real daughter and dog. The song Until We Meet Again, was written specifically for the film by Sergeant (Sgt) Liam Compson, Band of the Welsh Guards, who also sang it.

Filming the video, realising that this is reality to many soldiers this year and every year, made me feel very emotional." Corporal Fernanda Atherton

The married couple have been separated by long deployments before and know what it feels like to be away from their loved one.

The British Army’s communications team was keen to show people what it’s like to be a family separated during the festive period and used a real military family to tell the story. The film was directed and produced by Cpl Cameron Eden, Royal Logistic Corps, meaning the entire production was created in-house by serving personnel.

Fortunately for the Atherton family, they will get to celebrate Christmas together this year, at home with their four children and two dogs, as Sgt Karl has returned just in time from an overseas deployment. His many deployments include Afghanistan, America, Oman, Germany and Estonia. He said it was the opportunity to travel and serve his country that saw him join the Army.

Cpl Fernanda said: “Filming the video, realising that this is reality to many soldiers this year and every year, made me feel very emotional. It made me realise how lucky I am to have my whole family together with me. I feel more appreciative of the time we have together. And that to me is priceless.”

It’s not just the humans who miss their family; the dogs also miss their family member. Sgt Karl, who has deployed all over the world, says his dogs get extremely excited, jumping up and down, running around when they haven’t seen him for a long time. Cpl Fernanda says: “They both go crazy, jumping all over me and each other, Rudi wags his tail so much his whole bottom half of his body wags too.”

Where will the Army be?

Despite much of the UK shutting down over Christmas and the New Year, the military continues to play its part in providing national security. It is important that everyone understands the commitments those in the military make over the festive period and where they are made.

As well as the 2,000-plus soldiers deployed around the world, there are thousands of servicemen and women on duty in the UK over Christmas.

About 300 military personnel have just deployed to aid the Storm Arwen, conducting door-to-door checks to help communities across Aberdeenshire, Durham and Northumberland. Our soldiers are on stand-by across the UK to support their local authorities.

At least 400 vaccinators and 100 health care professionals will be giving out covid-19 booster vaccinations, and working in NHS hospitals over the festive period, easing the pressure on the NHS.

These soldiers should be recognised along with the thousands who are serving overseas, keeping our country safe. We are grateful to those service personnel who remain on duty over the Christmas period.

We recognise the commitment our military families make in supporting their loved ones, who are deployed at Christmas. The families of those on duty also need to be recognised and thanked for their ongoing support to the Armed Forces. Without them, the military would not be as effective.

Where can soldiers find support whilst deployed?

Soldiers still celebrate Christmas when deployed; it can be used as a time of reflection and a time for personnel to call on their colleagues for support. We understand how difficult these periods can be and the sacrifices that are made.

Every unit has a comprehensive welfare system, which is widely publicised. The network includes the Unit Welfare Officer, Chaplain, medical staff and Equality and Diversity Adviser. Personnel also have access to secondary welfare support through the Army Welfare Service, plus the Army confidential helpline, Speak Out, and the Samaritans helpline.