December has proven to be an interesting month for us. Our group of soldiers has shrunk from around 35 in August to 18 currently. We had five graduations this month. While we are sad to see them go, we know that they are much happier to be reunited with families and out of the confines of the training environment. We are hopeful that when we have our next in-processing on Monday, 4 January, that we will get some replacements. The Army closes down training and offers the soldiers leave during the holidays. It is the only time during training when they are allowed to take leave. All of our soldiers opted to spend Christmas with families, so we have been “on vacation” since 19 December. In spite of that, it seems like we have been very busy.
One of the things that we looked forward to is enjoying the Sabbath with no responsibilities. Every Sunday, we have to worry about assigning prayers, getting priesthood holders to bless and pass the sacrament, assigning an instructor for our joint Priesthood/Relief Society meeting, selecting hymns, assigning talks for sacrament meeting, setting up the chapel, cleaning up the chapel, preparing meals, transporting missionaries, and a dozen other details to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Although rewarding, it’s still a lot of work. The thought of just sitting in a regular congregation (and letting others worry about all those pesky details) seemed like heaven.
We attended church in the Newport News 2nd Ward. This ward includes Fort Eustis. There is also a Newport News 1st Ward, Newport News 3rd Branch (Spanish), and Newport News 4th Branch (inner city – they meet in an old bank building downtown). We really like Bishop Jeff Beck. He frequently comes to our mid-week religious study (FHE) and talks to the young soldiers about being deployed in a war zone (he has served in Iraq and was the LDS Group Leader in Baghdad). After around ten years as an NCO he became an officer and is currently a major in the Army Reserve.
As we sat down to enjoy our first sacrament meeting in the ward, Bishop Beck called us to the stand to share our testimonies with the ward. Then our Sunday School teacher kept asking us questions in class or asking us to read scripture passages. Ditto in priesthood meeting, but I think Mary Lou came out of Relief Society unscathed. So much for our peaceful day at church.
Mary Lou has been baking up a storm. She has been making these incredibly good platters of cookies and sweets to brighten the holidays. She made some for our neighbors here in the apartment complex. She made some for our local church leaders. She made some for the staff of the Army pharmacy where we do volunteer work each week. She made several for chaplains and chapel staff. Finally, she made some for the young missionaries with whom we work.
One of the tasks that we have is to inspect missionary apartments each quarter. This quarter, it got away from us and we were doing it in December. We inspect for cleanliness, orderliness, safety (checking on smoke alarms, CO detectors, fire extinguishers, etc.), that everything is in working order, and that there has been no damage to the property. Although our experience has been good, 18-21-year-olds do have the ability to do some stupid stuff from time to time. Not everyone understands about cleaning the mold out of the bathtub or the need to not leave a sink full of dirty dishes. We help educate them on these things.
One thing that every missionary is expected to do is render service to our fellow man. Selfless service is one of those things that helps change the world a little bit each day. We decided that we wanted to do something that would benefit those in the military. We decided to be volunteers at the McDonald Army Health Center at Fort Eustis. It used to be a full hospital, but with the administrative consolidation with Langley AFB, it was downgraded to just labs and clinics. The hospital at Langley AFB was much larger, so it was the surviving entity. For particularly complex cases, they send the soldiers to the Navy hospital in Portsmouth, which is even bigger.
To be able to be volunteers, we had to be certified by the American Red Cross. They ran background checks on us, gave us online training, and finally, after several months, approved us to be volunteers. The Red Cross is not a particularly efficient bureaucracy. The application process was cumbersome enough that it made us think that they really didn’t want people to volunteer. Once we were approved, then the Army took over the task of discouraging us. We had to go through all the same training as a new hospital employee would do, including safety training, emergency training, sexual harassment training, blood tests, and a bunch of other stuff that we have already forgotten. The worst was HIPAA and Privacy Act training covering medical records confidentiality and all the different, really bad things that could happen to us if we ever broke the rules. It was an on-line course in seven parts, all of which were long and boring, followed by much testing. But we slogged through it and are now official Red Cross volunteers.
We were assigned to the main pharmacy at the medical center. We help with counting pills (common drugs that they go through really fast, like industrial strength ibuprofen come in boxes of 10,000) and have to be placed in more useful size containers. We also scour the shelves for expired medications (of which there are a surprising amount). We help with receiving new inventory when there is a large order (such as always happens at the end of the fiscal year). Lately, we have been scanning paper prescriptions into a database and then sorting them in numerical order. That task is really an ordeal. The one good thing about this volunteer work is that we never have to wait for our prescriptions (and the wait can be long at a military pharmacy).
We also rendered service to our young missionaries. We had a senior missionary get-together at the mission home in Chesapeake. There we assembled gift bags for the young missionaries, had a nice potluck luncheon, sang Christmas carols, and then shared our favorite Christmas stories. There were some tears and emotions showing after some of those stories, along with some laughter. It was a great day.
We took the opportunity to go the temple in Washington, DC. At Christmas, there is extensive lighting of the grounds (with around 700,000 lights), a special crèche display, a large outdoor nativity scene, and lots of things to see at the Visitor Center. The Center was crowded with missionaries, local volunteers, and visitors. The Church had a Christmas campaign this year, “A Savior is Born.” There is a short video at http://www.christmas.mormon.org by that name. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth your time. We have pictures from this trip following.
Our mission had two “Christmas Conferences” for all missionaries. One was held in Virginia Beach and the other in Kinston, NC. The missionaries gathered for a movie (they are not normally allowed movies or TV during their missions), the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol. We then enjoyed a catered lunch. We had a new senior couple show up, having just arrived in the mission. Elder and Sister Golightly will be serving as military relations missionaries at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. Doug knew him from his AFROTC days at BYU. The rest of the day was spent in a devotional that showcased the musical talents of many of our missionaries. We were also blessed to receive instruction from Elder Dudley of the Seventy and his wife. It was a great day.
Christmas Day started for us with a devotional (over the phone) with all those serving in our mission. President Alan Baker and Sister Mary Kay Baker shared both their feelings about the holiday and their testimonies of the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Several other missionaries had been invited to do the same. It was a great way to start the day.
Then we 0pened the gifts in our stockings and had a simple, but tasty, breakfast of waffles, bacon, and sausage. Outstanding. We then opened the presents under the tree. A note about the tree – this is the first time in our marriage that we have not had a natural Christmas tree. We
ventured forth on Black Friday and picked up a modest, pre-lighted tree (made in China, of course) and spent a whopping $8 at Dollar Tree for ornaments, icicles, a topper, and a skirt. It turned out amazingly well. We will leave all this with the apartment for the couple that replaces us. Our gifts to each other are mostly books and DVDs, which is what each of us likes. We also got some very nice gift cards from family members.
Weather has been unusually warm and mild through November and December. The screen shot below of our home weather station on Christmas morning at almost 70 degrees!
Christmas dinner in the Diehl household is always a big deal. It is not because it is a feast, but because it a collection of individual feasts. Everyone in our home on Christmas gets to have whatever they want to eat, even if that means fixing separate meals for everyone. This year was fairly simple. Mary Lou wanted a chicken Alfredo pizza with green onions and garlic. It is the best. Doug went with the more classic New York strip steak. For dessert, we had discovered that there is a Cheesecake Factory in Virginia Beach. We stopped by there after the Christmas Conference and got a slice of chocolate mousse cheesecake for Doug and Snickers cheesecake for Mary Lou. It is hard to imagine a better ending to a great day than with cheesecake.
New Year’s Eve is also something of a production with the Diehls. Each year, we invite another couple to join us for a fondue dinner (both Fondue au Fromage and Fondue Bourguignonne). We serve ours with five sauces for dipping the meat – béarnaise, blue cheese, garlic, onion, and a traditional steak sauce. We like this meal because it is slow (due to the cooking time of the meat) and it encourages conversation. This year, we invited Ray and Lisa Campbell who have given us a lot of help with making meals for the soldiers. For dessert, we had a Mexican fried ice cream dessert from a recipe that our daughter Julianne sent us. It has become one of our favorites. It was a very pleasant evening. We didn’t stay up to ring in the new year, as New Year’s Day is a regular work day for missionaries and we had to be up for a zone training meeting to attend in Williamsburg.