For the first time in a long time, I was able to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Wisconsin. The North Dakota State University men’s basketball team was playing in Green Bay that weekend, so an assistant coach’s wife and I loaded up all five of our kids in the minivan and headed to meet up with our husbands.

After a nine-hour drive with two potty-training toddlers, 4- and 6-year old boys and my very tolerant 8-year-old daughter, all I wanted was to see my Aunt Mary and allow her to wait on me hand and foot.

One of the many reasons I love that woman is because she can cook like nobody’s business.

Just as we were getting ready to dig into a mouth-watering Thanksgiving buffet, I had a bit of a surreal experience when my 20-year old cousin, Jake, walked in the door.

The last time I saw Jake he was a high school senior, wearing his pants in the latest fashion – low enough so everyone knew what color boxers he preferred – and in general acting like a totally adorable teenage boy.

The Jake who walked into my Aunt Mary’s house was a man. His hair was clean-cut, he stood up straight and looked you in the eye, and when he gave me a hug, I knew that he meant it.

Jake is now an airman in the United States Air Force.

He’s the first family member in recent history to join the military, and he’s the first person I’ve personally known who is being sent to serve in Afghanistan.

We found out Jake is leaving for Afghanistan on Christmas Day.

After coming back to Fargo, I’m suddenly aware of how bittersweet this time of year must be for families who have dedicated their lives to serving this country. I cannot imagine how hard it is for the parents who have to miss everything because they are overseas, only to come home with the impossible task of trying to play catch-up.

The parents who are left here have to try to explain why mommy or daddy won’t be coming to the school play. They are wondering if anyone will be able to help them make sure Santa shows up, and they are so tired of doing it all themselves that they are ready to give up.

I want to say thank-you to those people who are making such an incredible sacrifice, who are giving the ultimate gift of kindness to me.

I also want to thank the organizations that try to add some magic to this season for our military families.

It’s hard to know what to say or give to someone to express your pride, concern and thankfulness for the sacrifices they are making.

In the end, my Aunt Mary wrote a prayer that Jake quietly tucked into his pocket. I hope you know that prayer includes you as well.