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Families of deployed guardsmen grateful despite being alone for the holidays
Ana Zambrano’s husband, Jhoan, is a member of the Gaineville-based 802nd Ordnance Company that deployed Nov. 18. With Ana are their children, Illana, 3, and David, 5. Zambrano said she is thankful to have a husband that is a great role model for their family. - photo by Tom Reed


Cyndy and Leonard Piha of Athens talk about their Thanksgiving plans with two sons serving overseas in the military.

Feeling upbeat, let alone thankful, on one of the calendar’s most family-oriented holidays would seem especially tough for loved ones of military family members serving in a war zone abroad.

For Ana Zambrano of Gainesville, the sadness is compounded by her husband’s 30th birthday falling on Friday.

But she has found the silver lining.

"I guess right now what I’m most thankful for is having a husband that I admire more than anyone I have met in my life," said Zambrano, whose husband is a member of the Gainesville-based 802nd Ordnance Company that deployed Nov. 18.

"He truly is a hero and a great role model for our family."

The Hall County area has its share of deployed military personnel, most recently with the 802nd, a U.S. Army Reserve unit training at Fort Hood, Texas, before heading to Afghanistan in mid-December.

And Gainesville-based Charlie Company, which is part of the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade, has been in Afghanistan since March.

Those soldiers are expected to be back in the U.S. by March 19 and in Gainesville by March 26, said the unit’s commander, Capt. Jeff Moran, who visited with family members Sunday during a two-week leave.

The Forsyth County resident is spending time with his family this week, set to return to duty on Sunday.

"I really lucked out on that one," he said of spending Thanksgiving at home.

"As the commander, I try to avoid having any holidays. It just fell that way because of my first sergeant. His wife is expecting, so I had to change my leave and this was the first available date I could change to."

His presence is not lost on his wife, Lorie.

"It is very exciting," she said. "I was telling some other family members I didn’t realize how sad and maybe depressed we were
until he got home and I heard my kids laugh.

"We’ve been laughing a lot and smiling a lot, and I just realized I hadn’t heard the laughter in my house for a long time. That was kind of eye-opening. ... Our family is back to normal, but I know it’s going to be short-lived."

But besides having him home, "I’m thankful he’s alive, he’s not injured, his whole company has been very blessed with no injuries," Lorie Moran said.

An Athens couple, Cyndy and Leonard Piha, are struggling through the holiday with two sons serving abroad, one in Charlie Company and the other in the U.S. Army unit out of Fort Richardson, Alaska.

They’ve decided to wait to celebrate Thanksgiving until Isaac, who is in Charlie Company, is home on leave in December.

The Pihas will spend some time with friends in Gainesville today.

"I wanted to call it off," she said of the holiday.

"Yeah, we didn’t really want to have it at home," he said.

The whole experience of having their sons serving abroad has been tough to bear.

"It’s pretty scary," said Leonard Piha. "It’s unnerving. We have mixed feelings. We’re very proud of them and we’re nervous for them."

Sarah and Allan Hytowitz of Johns Creek celebrated Thanksgiving early with their son, Sgt. Alex Hytowitz of Charlie Company, who was at home for a two-week leave starting in late October.

"He had all of his favorite foods ... and we got to announce officially his engagement," Sarah Hytowitz said.

Alex’s brother, Neil, said, "We did it right after Halloween, so it was kind of interesting having the holidays back to back."

Coping with his absence has been difficult.

"Denial has been an effective technique," deadpanned his father.

"You don’t look at TV," Sarah Hytowitz said. "You just wait for those phone calls."

Zambrano said she is thankful for "those people who stand by me through these harsh times."

"It’s almost like being a single mom and mourning someone you love very much," she said. "It’s not easy, but I’ll hang in there. I know God will bring him back to me safe and sound."

Meanwhile, she is looking ahead 400 days, when the 802nd’s deployment is set to end.

"When he gets back ... we will celebrate even bigger," she said.