Where's Daddy? When is he coming home? Why are you putting up the Christmas tree instead of him?

For Sylvia Melendez, the most difficult moments in her family's separation are when her 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter unexpectedly ask about their Army sergeant father serving in Iraq.

"I tell the kids that Daddy is working and he'll be home as soon as he can," said Melendez, 31, of Northeast Philadelphia. "There have been some tears."

Though the holidays are "more challenging" this year, Melendez has found support and understanding from other service families who know what it's like to miss a loved one.

This week, she joined scores of military spouses and children gathered for a "Hearts Apart" holiday party at the Fort Dix Youth Center. They were joined by soldiers and their families who had recently been reunited after deployments and others soon to be separated.

"It's been sad and emotional, but having activities like this makes it easier," said Melendez, who regularly speaks with and e-mails her husband Angel, stationed in Tikrit.

The party, Hearts Apart meetings and other family-related programs help create "a feeling of community and family," said Amada Espinoza, manager of the relocation program for the fort's Army Community Service.

"We support each other," Espinoza said as she greeted soldiers and their relatives.

Especially this time of year, you need the camaraderie of "others in the same boat," said guest Rosie Case, whose husband Jonathan, an Army chief warrant officer, is in Balad, Iraq. "Nobody is ever really prepared for this. You just do it," said Case, 36, of Point Pleasant. "I get somewhat emotional if I hear a song like 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.' I have moments of being weepy, but I'm mostly fine."

Case gave her husband an early Christmas present during a phone call in which she announced he was going to be a father. "He was quiet for a while and then said, 'Holy cow!' " she said. "He's thrilled."

The 36-year-old former Apache helicopter pilot, who now flies a C-12 passenger plane, is due home in May after nearly eight months away. The baby is expected in July.

"It's nice to know you're not alone," Case said. "I used to hear people talk about soldiers and their families, but I didn't know anyone in the military. Now, I'm one of those family members."

Spouses and children "have to adapt," said Jessica Simes, of Browns Mills, whose husband, Tyrone, is an Air Force loadmaster who regularly flies over Iraq. "This is a tough time. You go to as many holiday gatherings as you can to distract the kids. You give them gifts and toys," said Simes, 26, a relocation support assistant at the Army Community Service Center, and mother of two boys, ages 4 and 5.

"We cling together," she said. "We rely on our friends a lot more. We just deal with it. We don't really have any choice."

The pain of separation is sharp even when the Stateside spouse is also in the military. "Every day is difficult," said Claudia Bell, a senior master in the Air Force Reserve, who helps oversee the transport of patients. Her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Rance Bell, is a loadmaster who flies between Qatar and Iraq.

"I feel for the soldiers who don't come back, or come back without arms and legs," said Bell, 54, of Burlington Township. "Every day that passes is a day my husband is OK.

"You take it a day at a time," she said. "They're serving a wonderful cause. There is no price on freedom."

As the military family members ate, commiserated and encouraged one another, a company of young people from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Essex County, performed Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs.

Hugs for Children, Inc., a nonprofit based in Randolph Township, Morris County, arranged for the entertainment, food and gifts for the kids. The group also provides gifts at Army bases at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, N.C. It was Hugs' fifth year at Fort Dix, said founder Elzbieta Ravin.

She was joined by Sandra Bongart, a child advocate and cosmetologist at Adorn Beauty Center and Spa in Bordentown, which uses "therapy dogs" to help special-needs children get through haircuts. Bongart brought four dogs to the party for the children to play with.

"They're for stress management," she said, as the kids cuddled the dogs on the floor.

Michael Engi, president the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 899, brought a surprise, too: $1,500 worth of commissary gift certificates - $25 for each family.

"The lower-ranking enlisted men don't have the money that the officers make," Engi said. "They have wives and kids here. This helps them buy the things they need.

"None of us ever forgot how we were treated when we came home, so we welcome the troops. That's why we do things for their families."

Lyn Hayes, 36, whose husband Frank, an Army chief warrant officer, served in Iraq last year, has found that fort events such as the party help families "build relationships."

Hayes used to live in Lower Merion, but she moved into military housing on the base because she was lonely - even with six children, 7 to 18 years old.

"There are more services available and neighbors know what you're going through," she said. "You don't feel isolated. Before I even moved in, one neighbor brought over a plate of cookies."

For her part, Sylvia Melendez has vowed to give her children the best holiday she can.

"But next Christmas will be better, because Angel will be home," she said. "He's already making plans for it. He wants to take us to Hawaii."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.