By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN For families of military men and women serving overseas, holidays can be difficult, especially at Christmastime.
However, area families like those of Cokato resident Matt Lehto, staff sergeant in the US Marine Corp currently serving in Iraq try to make Christmas special despite the distance between them.
“People are so supportive,” said Heidi (Pokornowski) Lehto, Matt’s wife of two years.
Especially this time of year, community members are asking what they can send to him, she said.
Because it’s not a good idea to send big items that they will have to bring back home with them, smaller items, such as things they can eat or use on a regular basis (like personal care items), are what the Lehto family packs for Matt.
Whether it be mom’s homemade cracker jacks, personal care items, or recent editions of the local newspaper, Lehto will surely have a surprise in his Christmas care package.
As a 1992 Dassel-Cokato graduate, Matt spent his first four years in the Marines at Camp Pendleton.
Now, Lehto works as an explosive ordinance disposal technician in Iraq. This will be his sixth Christmas away from family and friends.
“The first Christmas that I spent away from home was different because you’re used to having family around and then, there is no one around,” Matt said via e-mail.
“For me, since I’ve been through it a couple of times, I remember the reason for the season,” he added.
Now, Matt and fellow veterans try their best to help make it easier for the younger Marines who are experiencing the holiday season for the first time away from home.
Since the military is ever-changing, no one knows exactly when Matt will be coming home, but Heidi is hoping he will be home before their baby is born in May.
Matt is very careful about not giving her information about when he might be coming home for fear of the date changing, she said.
“He tells me, unless he’s standing in front of me, to not get my hopes up,” Heidi said.
The biggest challenge for the family, is making sure they communicate during the holidays, which sometimes, isn’t easy or possible to do.
“It’s very rare to get a phone call,” Heidi said, explaining there is only one phone on his base.
Though e-mail is the more common form of communication, hearing “I love you” helps keep Heidi going, she said.
“It’s so much more personal than in an e-mail,” she said.
“I’m lucky though, Matt is really good at letting me know how much he loves me,” she said.
As a way to bring Matt into their home during the holiday season, Heidi and daughter Courtney, 8, began lighting a candle each night and saying a little prayer beginning the first of December.
“There has been lots of prayers,” Heidi said.
As far as the holiday itself, Heidi and Courtney want to make it as normal as possible. They will take more pictures though, and even make a short video to send him.
Courtney’s third grade class is also sending well-wishes to Matt for Christmas. Each of her classmates have written a personal letter to Matt, telling him about themselves and what activities they are doing in school.
In the letters, students could also ask questions of Matt and give him a Christmas greeting.
Also, the couple haven’t’ had their first turkey together yet, so when Matt does get home, Heidi is planning a big feast, she said.
Having served in the military herself makes it a little easier for Heidi.
“In my opinion, it’s a lot easier being away than home missing someone who is gone,” Heidi said.
“On the same note, I think missing him is a really small price to pay for our freedom, than what he has gone through on a day-to-day basis,” Heidi said. “Missing him is just my little part,” she added.
What has helped Heidi remain positive are the friends she has made whose husbands are also deployed.
“It helps to be with people who are going through the same situation,” she said.
Family has also been supportive, Heidi said.
Though Harriet and Edward miss their son, particularly this time of year, they are very proud of him and respect him for what he has chosen to do.
“[Matt is] a Marine 100 percent,” Harriet said. “He takes his Marine life very seriously and he’s proud to serve his country,” she said.
For Matt’s sister, Suzanne Haataja, this time of year is somewhat bittersweet.
“We miss him, but we are very proud of him,” Haataja said.
“Matt has always been dedicated to the Marines ever since he was a little kid,” she said.
Not only has Matt been dedicated to serving his country, but he also has helped to ensure children would have a special Christmas by volunteering with the Toys for Tots program.
“That’s just the type of person he is Matt would rather give at Christmas, before he worries about having a Christmas for himself,” she said.
Another military family will be profiled in next week’s Enterprise Dispatch.