Together in spirit: Sons ready to serve
Lisa and Herbert Tilton prepare for the holidays in Oak Bluffs, while their sons lace their boots for Afghanistan. The Tiltons, like other military families on Martha's Vineyard and throughout the nation, face the holidays with a void - the absence of their children, young people who are in or about to enter "harm's way."
"This will be our first Christmas without my boys," Lisa Tilton says, as she tries to keep tears from her eyes.
Bradley and Tony Cortez, the two middle children of the Tilton family, will soon be leaving for Afghanistan. Bradley is the first, leaving on January 3. Tony doesn't have a specific date yet.
Before deployment, Bradley will spend his short leave in Las Vegas, Nevada, to attend his brother Tony's marriage to Victoria Blanca Tovar, whom he met in boot camp two years ago. The two moved up their wedding date to ensure they would be stationed together when they both are deployed. The Tilton family, who cannot afford the trip to Nevada, won't see their son before he leaves for Afghanistan.
"Bradley will represent the whole family at Tony's wedding," Ms. Tilton says. "He will be the best man."
This year, it will be a very different Christmas for the Tilton family. Herbert Tilton says, "There's a hole this year. It's a little empty." He misses his outdoor activities with Bradley and Tony. They usually play sports and go ice fishing.
Ms. Tilton admits that she considered going without a tree this holiday, but thought that wouldn't be fair to their 12-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, the youngest child of the four children. So they have a small tree. Usually the family has a party on Christmas Eve, but this Thursday night, they'll have a simple dinner, just themselves.
Herbert (Herbie) Tilton III's Island history goes back to the 1600s. Ms. Tilton, a unit secretary in the Emergency Room of Martha's Vineyard Hospital, is a native of New York who had three boys before she met and married Mr. Tilton, Nicholas (who lives independently from the family), Bradley and Tony Cortez.
The Tiltons moved from New York to Martha's Vineyard because the boys were struggling in school, and Herbie believed that the Island's school system would serve them better. Within a year the boys began to excel, and both graduated high school with honors. Bradley and Tony entered Bridgewater State College where each was recruited into the Army.
Bradley, 24, was a member of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School football team in 2004 when they won the Super Bowl. He is currently a private E-2 stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the Army's 82nd Airborne Div., 4th BCT.
Tony, 22, also played high school football and sang with the Minnesingers. PFC Cortez is a member of the Massachusetts National Guard and is currently serving as an aviation operations specialist assigned to an air traffic control unit with the Army's Charlie Co. 3rd, 140th Aviation Regiment, in Las Cruces, N.M.
Ms. Tilton describes Bradley and Tony as true soldiers. "They both want to go to Afghanistan, because they believe it's the right thing to do for our country," she says. "I'm very proud of them, but it's sad, especially during the holidays." She wears her son Bradley's wings and a pin that says, 'Proud Army Parent,' and as she talks about the similarities between the two brothers, she laughs and cries simultaneously: "They dress alike, walk alike, and enjoy the same things. They even snore alike." She adds, "They talk to each other every day.
The family didn't want the boys to be interviewed because they don't want their sons worrying about how the family is feeling. Mr. Tilton, a former Marine says, "They have to concentrate and focus on what they're doing - keep their emotions in check. If you worry about other people's feelings, you can make mistakes and safety can become a problem."
He recalls that when he was in the service, he wasn't able to return home for the holidays. "You get a little low being away from family at Christmas," he says, "but you make the best of it. You have to adapt."
Both parents speak of the importance of supporting their sons in their decisions. Ms. Tilton says, "You have to let them go, but when you're a mother, you never completely let go in your heart."
Ms. Tilton's job helps to keep her from worrying too much. She describes the nurses and other staff members who work in the Emergency Room at the hospital as family. One of her biggest supports is Bertha Blake, a unit secretary who works the shift preceding hers. "Bertha also has two sons in the service. She prepares me for how things work and what I can expect. She is so helpful and supportive."
Many families with sons, daughters, or other family members in the military are struggling with the damper that puts on the holidays. Ms. Tilton believes it is important that military families know that they are not alone. "I'd be happy to talk to other mothers of servicemen," she says. "We can support each other."
"I miss playing in the snow with my brothers, having snowball fights and making igloos," Cheyenne says. "All of my friends like my brothers too. Brad and Tony take us ice skating. My friends always ask where they are and when will they go overseas.
"I usually wake my brothers up on Christmas morning by screaming their names and jumping on their beds. Then they throw pillows at me. I go back in a few minutes and bring them their stockings. I'll really miss doing that."
This year the stockings are in the mail.
Mary Quinn is a freelancer living in Oak Bluffs.