Few people have more experience missing family gatherings during the festive season than Buninyong’s Major John Spencer.
The Royal Australian Army officer has been in the defence force for 36 years, since he was just 17.
While rising from the enlisted ranks to be a non-commissioned officer, before earning his commission, Major Spencer has been away from home during a long list of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
Most recently that included a 10-month stint in Afghanistan, where he and other officers were mentoring the Afghan National Army.
Major Spencer was in the Middle East from October last year to August this year.
The lengthy period not only included Christmas, but also his daughter’s 16th birthday and his 30th wedding anniversary.
To make up for it, he and his wife Tracey spent a week in Europe to mark the occasion.
The holiday was a far cry from busy training camp he and other Australian soldiers called home in Afghanistan.
Major Spencer said Tracey, and his daughters Alana and Rose, had become well accustomed to his deployments.
“We always have a deal that I send the girls a letter saying if I am being a pain in the bum when I return, let me know,” he said.
“Or if they are I will (let them know), so we have a month for me to settle back in.”
Along with the officers training the Afghan forces, the base had a contingent of Australians from Darwin assigned to provide protection.
Major Spencer said missing holidays was always hard, but his first priority was helping these soldiers, particularly the younger ones, celebrate Christmas.
“The younger guys don’t realise life goes on while you're away,” he said.
“You come home and if you think you can just slot back into life, it doesn’t work that way.”
On Christmas Day, Major Spencer and other officers take over guard duty, allowing the soldiers who spend the vast majority of their time protecting others, to take a break.
He said they also organise a Christmas meal for them, which occurred during a day of snowfall in Afghanistan last year, something the Australians do not usually experience.
“For the older soldiers it is not too drastic, so we make it as good as we can for the younger ones,” Major Spencer said.
“They look after us when we are out on the ground and they are protecting us, so we do it to repay them.”
He said although being away can be tough, often the hardest part is returning home and re-acclimatising to civilian life.
However since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started a continued presence of Australian soldiers overseas, the process for helping soldiers adjust back into life at home has improved.
This has included a greater awareness about PTSD.
Soldiers can also make video calls to their loved ones, easing the burden while they are away.
Major Spencer said it has made a noticeable difference.
“We didn’t even have telephones in the first few years,” he said.
“Tracey has 30 plus years of letters, but now it is all easier to keep in contact. I went through 20 years of peace and during that time I went on training camps to lots of different countries – then with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the operations started.”
Soldiers who deploy for nine months get two weeks leave. It was during this time Major Spencer and Tracey celebrated their anniversary.
Now with deployment over, Major Spencer has returned to his regular posting at Puckapunyal in central Victoria, splitting his week between the base and his home at Buninyong.