CRESTVIEW — A local service member’s overseas airbase spent the holidays much like residents in town, with a Christmas feast, toys and entertainment.
For Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing’s uniformed men and women broke bread with comrades, collected toys for Kyrgyzstan children in orphanages and schools, and listened to Nashville-based rock band Hip Kitty during a two-day performance for deployed troops, among other activities.
Chief Master Sgt. Leonard Thibodeaux, of Crestview, welcomed 2013 at the Manas Transit Center in the Kyrgyz Republic of Central Asia. Base members transport military personnel and supplies to and from Afghanistan.
The transit center, which functions like a small town, includes a mayor who ensures “all service members transiting through are safe and comfortable,” the group’s website, manas.afcent.af.mil, states.
Leonard, as deputy mayor, regularly monitors safety conditions and helps ensure comrades’ quality of life.
"The conditions have been a concern for us," he said. "We have had to deal with frozen water pipes and down power lines. We have had several nights when the temperature was below freezing. These conditions can make transporting personnel difficult.”
He also promotes morale.
"There are several here that are spending time away from families for the first time," said Leonard, who helps prevent comrades’ homesickness or helps them cope with it.
"We are a family and we always take care of each other," he said.
"Being a military wife is a very challenging role," Leonard’s wife, Shelia, 47, said. "If our relationship isn't the way that it is, it wouldn't have lasted this long.”
Sheila, a Hurlburt Field civilian who served four years in the Air Force, met Leonard at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Her husband — who has toured Afghanistan and Germany in his 29-year military career — has missed wedding anniversaries, birthdays and high school and college graduations.
Holiday absences particularly are tough.
"It never gets any easier," Leonard said. "This (was) my fourth Christmas away from them."
However, distance does little to keep the couple apart. Leonard and Sheila communicate daily through Skype, a web-based video call service.
Family and friends also help. For instance, service members from nearby families taught both their children how to drive since their dad was unavailable.
"The military is such an awesome support system," Shelia said.
One way or another, they make it work, the couple said.
Leonard plans to retire from the Air Force in January of 2014 and the couple plans to stay in Crestview.
"Crestview is where I lay my hat," Leonard said. "I plan to spend the rest of my life there."
The couple’s eldest son, also named Leonard, 24, recently joined the Air Force and works at Hurlburt Field. His brother, Billy Thibodeaux, 23, works for the county clerk’s office.
Shelia looks forward to her and her husband spending more time with their grandson, Wyatt, whom Leonard and his wife welcomed in August.
"We have a lot of catching up to do," Shelia said. "We’re going to have to get used to being around each other again."
That shouldn't be a problem.
After all, "God made him for me and vice versa," Shelia said.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Matthew Brown at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbMatthew.