Sharon Youngquist has known for a long time that her children, Justin and Kristen Ernst, had a desire to serve their country.
As all military families know, that means many birthdays, milestones and holidays will be spent apart. That’s why this Christmas is all the more special and joyous for Youngquist as she welcomed both of her soldiers back for a holiday among friends and family.
“It’s beyond words,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier to know that they’re here and we’re all together. We’re holding each other, laughing, crying and looking to what the future holds for them.”
Justin Ernst left for basic training in the fall after graduating from high school last May while Kristen Ernst took a longer path to service.
“My daughter wanted to join right after she graduated from high school four or five years ago, but couldn’t meet the requirements,” Youngquist said. “She went to the recruiter to pick up some forms for her brother and left with a meeting scheduled for herself. They ended up leaving for basic training within a month of each other.”
Both siblings enlisted in the Army. Justin completed basic training in Georgia while Kristen learned her drills in South Carolina. Both were preparing to move on to advanced training when they got the word they would be able to spend Christmas at home in the Northwoods.
“My sergeant told everyone that we were going to get a two-week break to spend time with family and friends,” Kristen Ernst said. “It was a good surprise to be able to have a break.”
When Youngquist learned she would see both of her children at Christmas, she knew she had to make it special.
“We’re doing a lot of baking,” she said. “We’re making all their special meals and treats that they’ve liked through the years. I want to make sure they have everything they want. Sitting at the table, frosting Christmas cookies is the stuff you take for granted. It’s like they’re little all over again.”
Youngquist thought of one more special gesture for her kids.
“Usually, we put up a fake Christmas tree,” she said. “This year, I went out and bought a big, beautiful tree. I always saved the little things they made through the years as kids and this year that’s how I decorated the tree. Moms keep that stuff and they were floored when they saw it. It was wonderful.”
When the day finally came for the children to fly home, Youngquist got in her car and headed down to Mosinee where her daughter’s plane was scheduled to land. Justin Ernst would arrive later in Milwaukee.
“Kristen flew into Detroit first and they ended up having plane problems there, so she was delayed three hours,” she said. “It was a long, grueling afternoon, but as soon as she walked through those sliding doors, we both started bawling like a couple of babies. She was finally home.”
Then the two made the trip down to Milwaukee to pick up Justin.
“He got in around 9:30 p.m. and we did it all over again,” Youngquist said. “A lot of (soldiers) flew into the same airport, so I was looking around at all these fatigues, trying to find which one was mine. As soon as I saw him, I dropped everything I had and just hugged him. I knew I was going to spend the next two weeks with my kids.”
When the two leave to continue their training in early January, their ultimate destination will be up in the air. Kristen Ernst may end up stationed in South Korea while Justin Ernst’s training will run a little longer. After they receive their assignments, it’s very unlikely they’ll be back for Christmas next year.
“This could be my last Christmas with everyone under the same room,” Youngquist said. “We’re all trying to make this the very best Christmas we can. It means absolutely the world to me. I never cried so hard in my life than I did when I picked them up from the airport. They’re serving their country and I told them they are my Christmas present this year. They’re all I need and to get them back for one Christmas is wonderful. They’re changing their lives for the better and becoming wonderful human beings. I’m honored to be their mother and I give them all the love in the world.”
Now that they’re home, the siblings are enjoying some of the things they’ve missed most while gone.
“It’s really nice to be back home,” Justin Ernst said. “It’s definitely different temperature-wise though. Nothing has changed at all. It’s nice to see my family and friends instead of being on base working.”
Kristen Ernst said come early January, it may be hard to leave again.
“I want to do everything and anything I can while I’m home,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s a whole new experience to say I could actually go home with my mom. It’s great to see so many family members proud of my brother and me.”
Kristin is really focused on taking it all in though. She realizes this could be the last time she’s home for quite awhile.
“I want to see everyone I haven’t seen yet and not take anything for granted,” she said. “I don’t know if things are going to change before I can make it back again. I want to be able to spend as much time with family as I can. I just want to enjoy everyone’s company and know that this is what Christmas really means.”
Andy Hildebrand may be reached at email@example.com.