Going the distance this Christmas

Published 11:09am Thursday, December 12, 2013

Youth ministers are known for going the distance to reach students. One on staff at a Baptist church out on Highway 84 West may have the rest beat, though. Capt. Waygon Sanders of the National Guard taught a group gathered at Pleasant Grove last Sunday evening by Skyping – all the way from Afghanistan.

“He had to get up around 3:30 a.m. his time,” his wife, Rochelle, explains, “but it really went well.”

Thirteen young men and women took advantage of the opportunity to not only hear, but see, their far-away leader teach them once again, and they weren’t disappointed when Sanders’ image – including the expected camouflage and buzz cut – was projected on a makeshift screen in the fellowship hall. Sanders, who left for his second deployment in October, serves with the 858th Engineer Company. While his role at Pleasant Grove is part-time, his job with the guard is not, and will have him away from home for at least seven more months. Those of us who’ve worked with youth groups may be wondering: Which job is tougher – leading them or commanding his 150 troops?

The toughest job may actually belong to Rochelle, who’s left behind to keep the home fires burning – and holiday spirits up – for the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Fiona.

“It’s not our first Christmas apart but it’s definitely going to be harder because of her,” Rochelle admits. “She’s just starting to understand Christmas and to be excited.”

The captain is trying to keep a good attitude. By email he writes, “The positive is that multiple churches and community organizations have sent care packages and this helps. It’s not so much the supplies in the box, which we are grateful for, but it is knowing that people continue to care. I received cards and boxes from people that say, “you don’t know me, but …” and this shows that people want to stay engaged in helping troops.”

And in spite of the miles, the Sanders family has plans to open presents together Dec. 25, via laptop, after a day filled with extended family for the ladies, and a special lunch on the base for their favorite soldier. Rochelle says Fiona is a big fan of Skyping. “She hugs the monitor, and she and Waygon hold up hands for a high five.”

Capt. Sanders points out that not all soldiers will have that opportunity, though. “Readers should know that deployment comes with different challenges,” he shares. “Some soldiers are able to video call home for Christmas and see loved ones opening presents, while others on smaller FOBs will not have such a luxury.

“The main thing to remember is that we want to leave Afghanistan in a state where enemies of the United States will not be able to operate unhindered. When I think of all the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and their families, then I’m sure of what I’m fighting for, and it’s OK to miss one Christmas.”

Sanders will be missed by his mother and sister this season as well, especially since his father passed away in February. His work facilitating base closures means other families will be together, though. “It will be very tough to be away for the holidays, but as we close down these forward operating bases, soldiers are able to go home. It encourages us to continue working to help close FOBs down.”

And that’s how Capt. Waygon Sanders of Lincoln County will spend most of his Christmas this year – working in a tactical operations center in the Middle East in order for his soldiers to have the day off.

So if you see Rochelle Sanders over at Bank of Brookhaven, you might want to wish her Merry Christmas. Oh, and be sure to tell her happy anniversary as well. Monday marked the seventh one for her and Waygon, and they missed out on celebrating that together, too.

Capt. Sanders encourages those who would like to follow the work of the 858th Engineering Company to search for their Facebook page, which posts photos and updates on a daily basis.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.