Christmas Day means a time of togetherness for thousands of Brown County families. But for a few hundred, the holiday season serves only to underscore the separation they experience because a loved one is serving overseas in the armed forces.

For Virginia Mace of Brownwood, this is the first Christmas since she and her husband, 1st Lt. Chance Mace, were married 15 years ago that they will be apart. Chance Mace, a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve, was deployed to Iraq on Sept. 13 after being in the service for a year.

“It’s an absolute calling for us,” Virginia Mace said. “Our family unit is very strong. We have a deep faith that we’re OK. Our focus is on Jesus at Christmas, and that transcends everything.”

Chance Mace was a firefighter when he enrolled at Howard Payne University’s campus in El Paso to complete his bachelor’s degree.

“We were apart for maybe 24 hours then, but we’ve never had anything like this,” Virginia Mace said.

The family visited Brownwood for two days while attending his graduation in 2004. From there, he accepted a call to a church in New Orleans, but they were displaced when Hurricane Katrina hit the next year. He then pastored a church in Virginia. After Chance Mace joined the Reserves, they moved to Brownwood.

“Chance is able to call between one to three times a week,” Virginia Mace said, “and we’re hoping he’ll be able to call on Christmas.” The calls are limited to 15 minutes, and sometimes they end abruptly when the audio connection is lost. As a chaplain, Mace is often at a command base, so he is usually able to e-mail daily.

Even though they have relatives in El Paso, Virginia Mace said they will be spending Christmas in Brownwood, at home.

“We spent Thanksgiving with them,” she said. “Thanksgiving is about family, but it was just a blur. I like to spend Christmas at home, so you can focus on what’s important.”

Members of their church at First Baptist in Brownwood have been very supportive to them, Virginia Mace said. “They’ve just been wonderful,” she said of her church family. “They’re stretching their hands out to us.”

The Military and Family Support Group has helped, too.

“The Brownwood Reunion Celebration was held right after Chance deployed,” Virginia Mace said, “and I told the girls we weren’t just going to sit around. So we went downtown. That’s where we met Joyce (Leidig) and the people in the support group.”

Although they are Southern Baptist, Virginia Mace said the Army’s training taught her husband how to be an effective minister to soldiers of various backgrounds.

Melanie Martin of Brownwood, whose husband, Pfc. Adrian Martin, is stationed in South Korea after joining the Army in June, is expecting their first child in early February, so her focus is more on that month than it is on Christmas.

“I’m sad that he can’t be here for Christmas, but this is military life, and that’s his job,” Melanie Martin said.

Still, Adrian is usually able to call every day, and Melanie is looking forward to that Christmas Day call. But the 15-hour time difference is something of a challenge. Usually, one of them has to get up during the night because of his work schedule.

“I had been doing that, but Adrian doesn’t want me to, with the baby coming so soon now,” Melanie Martin said. “But I know he needs his sleep, too.”

Her husband is scheduled to take his two-week mid-tour break from Jan. 28 to Feb. 20, and they are hoping their first child - they believe it’s a girl — will be delivered near the scheduled due date of Feb. 6. His job involves “watching the North Koreans watch the South Koreans,” she said, and while the situation can still be tense, she’s glad that the saber-rattling in that part of the world has eased somewhat recently.

“I really hope the baby comes when he’s here,” Melanie Martin said. “If not, it will be eight more months before he’ll be back. We have a Web camera hooked up, and that helps.”

The Martins are hoping Christmas will bring them some extra cash to help pay for Adrian’s airfare home from Korea. They don’t have all of the more than $1,200 the round-trip ticket costs.

“The Army gives them two weeks to come home, but they don’t provide transportation,” Melanie Martin said.

Despite the personal difficulties her husband’s military service involves, Melanie Martin said she knows it’s what he wants to do.

“He really loves the military,” she said. “He felt like God was calling him to the military. The Army has great benefits, this is just bad timing for us. But the baby is a real blessing.”

She said her husband’s faith has been a benefit to other soldiers.

“The guys can get real lonely, and depressed being away from home,” she said. “It would be better if the deployments weren’t as long as a year, but it needs to be that way because the people there need to get to know us.”

Melanie Martin’s support group includes members of her church, Brownwood Bible Fellowship, and family. Both of them grew up in Brown County, and both sets of grandparents live here.

“I love our church,” she said. “They support us a lot.”

Melanie Martin said she believes her husband will join the Reserves after his discharge from the Army.

“I’d like for him to stay,” she said. “I don’t mind being a military wife. But it does have its ups and downs. We really rely on God.”

This year is not the first that Amy Wellmon and her husband, Staff Sgt. Jimmy Wellmon, have been separated by his military service at Christmas, but that doesn’t make it any easier for them. Amy Wellmon said she and their five children plan to open presents on Christmas morning and “take a lot of pictures,” but something will still be missing.

Jimmy Wellmon has been deployed since April, when he went to training in Mississippi. He’s been in Iraq since August. He previously served 17 years in the Army, and his National Guard unit is now deployed.

“It’s nothing new for us,” Amy Wellmon said. “It’s just part of the deal. It’s his second deployment in three years. But we hope to have him home in April or May.”

After thinking about that for a while, though, she came back to it, and explained that it’s part of a facade —her attempt to be brave.

“It’s really depressing,” Amy Wellmon said of the separation. “But you try to be brave, to put on a happy face. Inside, though, you’re not happy. He’s your spouse, and he’s not here to celebrate with us.”

She said their friends, the Military and Family Support Group and the VFW Auxiliary have been helpful to them while her husband’s been deployed.

“We have faith that God has a plan for everybody, and that life will be normal again soon,” she said. “You have to have faith in God. We do a lot of praying.”

The Wellmons hope they will be able to talk by telephone on Christmas Day, but that’s not much more than a hope. Because of his assignment, Jimmy Wellmon may not be in a place where communications with his family will be possible.

“All the time, we’re just waiting for him to call,” Amy Wellmon said. “We never know when that might be, or how often it will be.”

They won’t be surprised if he isn’t able to call, because he couldn’t do so over Thanksgiving.

Christmas would normally bring lots of excitement to the Wellmon home, with five children ranging in age from 5 to 19 there to celebrate. But they know that in Iraq, their husband and father is not in a position to celebrate.

Amy Wellmon said one of the most difficult aspects of the separation is that her husband has missed most of his 5-year-old son Hunter’s life, having been deployed to Iraq twice in the past three years.

“It’s real hard on him, and it’s real hard on us,” Amy Wellmon said.

While she said friends have been supportive, they simply can’t understand what military families experience unless they’ve gone through it themselves.

“When you talk to someone, they try to understand, but they don’t unless they’ve been there,” Amy Wellmon said. “A military wife will feel the same way. We have to do everything — be the parent, pay the bills. It’s just real depressing.”

In the Wellmons’ situation, not being able to have frequent contact by telephone is especially difficult. They have no schedule for calls, and the family must hope they’re home when Jimmy Wellmon calls. Because of restrictions, he can only call a home phone — not a cell — so there have been times when they return from the store to hear a message that he had called.

“You just bawl because you missed him,” Amy Wellmon said.

When they are home, they rush to the telephone whenever it rings on the chance that it might be a call from Iraq.

On the other hand, Amy Wellmon said she cringes if someone rings the doorbell, for fear it might be bad news.

“All the kids’ friends know not to ring the bell,” she said. “They just come on in.”

She has her home computer programmed to announce if her husband sends an e-mail.

“I have it turned up pretty loud, and the hum makes it difficult to sleep at night,” she said.

On Saturday, Amy Wellmon and two of her children sold red military support T-shirts at Heartland Mall, and she said one woman gave them a nasty look as she passed by.

“That’s just some of the stuff we have to deal with,” she said. “I’m not a politician, but some people think if you don’t support President Bush you can’t support the troops. They’re over there so we can celebrate here. They’re trying to give that country a chance at a future. We should give the troops a little bit of thanks. For all I know, half of the troops may not support the president themselves. They would rather not be there. They’d rather be home with their families. But they are there so those people can be free.”

Thanksgiving was a depressing time for them, as well, Amy Wellmon said. “Our entire family’s life has been put on hold until he comes home.”

For example, some family members have become engaged, but they have delayed setting wedding dates until Wellmon’s deployment is over.

One member of the family who is making future plans, though, is their son, Steven, 17, a high school senior who will commit this week to enlisting in the Army after graduation.

“He’s always been around the military, but he told us that wasn’t for him,” Amy Wellmon said. “That was really a surprise when he came home and told us he had talked to the recruiter.”