Roberto Peña won’t make it home for the winter holidays. Having already spent his accumulated leave to make it back to his native Denver for his birthday and Thanksgiving, the marine sergeant will tough it out in Camp Pendleton or look to be taken in by a local family. Unfortunately, his parents Craig and Adela may have to grow accustomed to his holiday absence as he pursues his goal of becoming an embassy security guard, a position that could literally take him to five other continents. Each successive assignment could last as long as three years.
Peña’s father, Craig, always worries about his son, “But no more than any parent. The U.S. Marine family is incredibly supportive. Roberto belongs to the biggest fraternity in the world.” As for his absence during the Christmas holiday, the elder Peña is trite, “It is great when he’s here and it sucks when he’s not.” Craig continues, “If he can’t be home, I encourage him to travel the world with his free time but Roberto just wants to come home to see his family.”
Peña enlisted after high school and is now in his second deployment. This time around, he knows the game; bank as much leave as possible and use it for time when he really wants to be home. For re-enlisting, Roberto has earned his family’s respect. Craig explained, “Somebody has to protect our country. It was our son who chose to and we have to support him. The U.S. Marines are the tip of our spear.”
This year Jachin Almon won’t make it home for the holidays either. He serves in the U.S. Navy and is stationed at the Kings Bay, Georgia, Submarine Base. He left home in Clarksville, Tennessee after high school when a collegiate basketball career didn’t pan out. It has only been two years since he joined the Navy, and with military parents, he thought he knew what military life was all about, but not being with his parents for the holidays is a new experience which is taking some adjusting. “On Christmas Day, I only get to Facetime with my parents. I’m married with two kids and I will celebrate with them, so that makes it easier being away.” Almon continues, “But nothing is the same as spending Christmas with my parents.”
Besides the adjustment of being without his parents this year, Almon said as a new father, “Instead of me receiving the gifts this year, now I’m doing most of the giving.” He wants to make a career out of the Navy and his next goal is to go overseas where getting back for Christmas at home in Tennessee will be even tougher. He has his eyes set on a number of locations including Bahrain, Greece, Italy or Japan. Almon sums up, “It’s hard not being home but nothing you can’t get through. If I didn’t have my wife and two kids it would be tougher.”
For servicemen and women like Peña and Almon, a handful of organizations collect goods and donations to send to U.S. bases around the world. California-based non-profit, Move America Forward has sent hundreds of tons of care packages to troops including those stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through an annual fundraiser designed to attract sponsors, the MAF Troopathon lasts 8 hours and features Hollywood celebrities. More recently, the organization created K-9 care packages sent to working dogs and their military handlers.
Another non-profit takes one step further, purchasing airline tickets for troops to travel home for the holidays. Called ‘Let’s Bring Em Home’, the Cape Coral, Florida organization collects donated frequent flier miles and cash to bring military personnel back home to celebrate with family. Founded in 2001 by Air Force alum Ernie Stewart, around 96 percent of donations received goes directly to airline tickets. Their tax returns and service personnel receiving tickets are listing online on an annual basis ensuring accountability. According to their web site, this year they have received nearly $80,000 in cash and $143 thousand donated frequent flier miles from over 490 donors. They target their services toward junior enlisted personnel who are most likely unable to afford the expense of traveling home for the holidays. Troops can only receive one ticket per lifetime from the organization and all travel must be approved by supervisors. ‘Let’s Bring Em Home’ is a few thousand dollars short of their goal this year. For more information regarding the organization, please see www.lbeh.org.
According to an October 2017 Department of Defense report on Armed Forces Strength, 1.3 million personnel currently make up the United States Armed Services. Over one third are part of the Army while the Navy and Air Force comprise almost one quarter each. The Marine Corps accounts for 14 percent of military personnel and the Coast Guard is the smallest contingent with just 3 percent. The current troop strength has remained relatively unchanged from ten years ago according to historic reports.
U.S. military personnel are categorized with over 200 religions and with language capabilities of over 550 dialects. 36 percent of troops are stationed in the United States with 200,000 personnel stationed overseas. The largest deployment abroad is 13 percent in China, 5 percent are based in Saudi Arabia, 4 percent in Russia, and just over 3 percent each in India, France and the United Kingdom. Japan, Germany and South Korea round out the top 10 personnel bases. In all, U.S. troops are stationed in over 175 countries.
California accounts for the highest number of active military with 11 percent. Texas follows closely with 10 percent and smaller states North Carolina and Virginia comprise 9 and 8 percent respectively. Colorado has the 9th most military personnel. Latinos make up 12 percent of active duty personnel according to Pew Research. This represents a tripling since 1980 and a 3 point increase in the last ten years.
Nearly $700 billion will be spent on defense in the 2018 budget, well over half of our country’s discretionary spending. The next largest global military expenditure is by China which is smaller by about two-thirds. The defense budgets of the nine next biggest spending countries is approximately equal to the U.S. military budget.