It can always be a trying time around the holidays for those serving overseas in the military or those who have family serving overseas.
For Conrad Weiser third-grade teacher Anna Schmeck, who deployed for the first time to the Middle East with the Pennsylvania National Guard, this Christmas is a little tougher, but she’s still finding a way to smile.
"Christmas is one of my favorite holidays," she said in an email interview. "So, even though being away from family is hard, I am looking forward to sharing it with the new family I have here and making it the best Christmas we can here."
Schmeck, 27, a Kutztown University graduate, is a specialist in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard assigned to the 628th Aviation Support Battalion. Her unit deployed in September and is attached to the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade.
Schmeck misses her family and students, especially now that the holidays are here.
"I know it probably sounds like a cliche answer, but I miss being in my classroom and teaching my students," she said. "Not online, but in person. I miss seeing the moment they finally understand a concept, hearing about the kids’ weekends and all the exciting things they love to share."
Schmeck who works in the base’s motor pool, has found time to bring a little bit of her classroom to her work space.
"During this time I love to decorate my classroom for the kids and do a lot of fun activities with them," she said. "Rather than a classroom, I have spent time decorating the motor pool to make it feel a little more like home. I really miss teaching in the classroom and interacting with the students."
6,000 miles away
Even though she’s more than 6,000 miles away from her students Schmeck is still thinking about them.
She asked Nicole Moore, co-principal at Conrad Weiser Middle School, to have teachers pick books for their classroom so Schmeck could give them a surprise.
"I am now recording some of the soldiers reading those books for the students and dedicating it to that teacher's classroom," she said. "I will be sending the books back to the teacher to keep in their classroom. I really enjoy doing this."
Schmeck and some of her fellow soldiers also sent a special holiday message to her students this year.
Moore hired Schmeck as a teacher and spoke with her about the deployment before she left.
"She’s a great teacher," Moore said in September. "She's respected by her colleagues even though she’s only been in it for a couple years."
Moore said students are very excited to listen to the soldiers read the books they are sent and enjoy sending care packages.
It may seem a lot for someone to be deployed overseas, managing a plethora of military vehicles and still find time to care for students back home. Knowing Anna, it’s not unusual, Moore said.
"She puts 100% of effort into everything she does," Moore said. "She will make the time to stay connected because it's what she believes is right.
"Anna has done a great job, in between her duties on the base, with connecting with staff and students. She still maintains that smile that lights up a classroom."
Over the summer when Schmeck was in Texas preparing to deploy, she did something similar with members of her unit read fairytales for her third-grade students.
"I love bringing together my two careers," she said.
Schmeck’s students, co-workers and family members have been sending her care packages that keep her spirits up, especially when the packages contain peanut butter cups, she said.
"I love Reese’s, so that has been included in a lot, along with coffee," she said. "They have also sent a lot of cards and letters. These are probably my favorite to read and receive."
She was also sent a box of Rice Krispie treats that had messages from her students and colleagues that read, "You Rock!", "Keep it up!", "We love you!" and "We are proud of you!"
This is Schmeck's first deployment in wartime or peacetime and she admits it has been challenging at times. She works 3 to 11 p.m., she’s constantly busy and there's an eight-hour time difference with Berks County that is sometimes hard to remember.
Schmeck, a 92A or automated logistical specialist, spent most of her military career performing her job during her Guard duty weekends.
Overseas, her work has ramped up, but she has been enjoying every minute of it.
"At home, I deal a lot more with just the vehicles being inspected, services being created and ordering some parts," she said. "Here, I have learned much more about each of those but also a lot more about how to track parts, man hours and productivity."
She was recently awarded the Army Achievement Medal for the work she did in Texas preparing to deploy.
While Schmeck performs most of her duties on the base, she was able to go on a parts mission outside and take in the unique architecture along the route.
"I was very surprised by all the beautiful buildings and homes," she said. "The mosques were probably my favorite to see. There are so many and each one has a unique design. I was also surprised to see the small villages the locals live in. Two very different living environments in such close proximity to each other."
Despite being away from her family and students, Schmeck has developed a family atmosphere with the fellow soldiers in her unit.
"I have met some great people and am very grateful to have the opportunity to work with them and to have them here while being away from my family and friends back home," she said.