December 22, 2009
I didn’t write this week’s post. An old friend tracked down through the power of social networking did. He has graciously written an extraordinary piece for danapop in what I think captures the true essence of the holiday season.
Happy holidays all.
When I was a kid, I used to watch the holiday messages made by troops stationed overseas. I aspired to be like those soldiers on television. I envied those who were off in some far away country, doing interesting things. I wanted to give a big smile, a wave and tell everyone best wishes from somewhere nobody had ever heard of. Of course, when I was growing up, we were not at war.
I recently had the opportunity to make just such a video. You could record a holiday message in an area set aside in the morale tent. I sat down on the stool, looked at the camera, started to say something, but nothing came out. I looked at film tech and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.” I then grabbed my helmet and walked off to a meeting to talk about the latest insurgent tactics.
I am not sure why I couldn’t say anything. Maybe because it was September and it was 110 degrees. Maybe because Christmas was the last thing I was thinking about. Maybe because I didn’t want to make a video wishing everyone back home a Merry Christmas, when there was the possibility that I might be dead before the video even aired back home. And when I tried to say Merry Christmas in September, it just sort of…died on my lips.
Time back home is marked by holidays and the passage of seasons. The hands on the clock and the days on the calendar have meaning. Around September, when the air first starts to get a chill, we pull our sweaters out of the closet and can’t help, but think that soon it will be Christmas.
It is not like that when you are in combat. Time has no meaning. The only calendar that counts is the carved notches in the plastic porta-john marking your time left or the dirty socks in the bottom of your rucksack marking the days you’ve gone without clean clothes. Back home you might wake up and mistake one day for another, but in combat you lose whole weeks, sometimes months. If you are not careful, you can lose yourself to the vast monotony and disembodiment as one sleep-deprived day blurs into another. I once woke up and was shocked to realize that it was the second week of December.
Did you know that most of those videos are made months before Christmas? Most people don’t know that. They also don’t know that the only people who are available to make those videos are the rear echelon personnel; many of whom had never been outside the wire in bad guy country. Life for them, on a base that does video messages, wasn’t all the much different from being back home.
Christmas for a grunt is different. Few grunts can afford the mental luxury of thinking about Christmas. Ask a grunt about Christmas in a combat zone and he’s likely to stop and try to remember what day it is. If he is lucky, he’ll get to a KBR chow hall and eat some real food. Maybe he’ll have saved some mail that he got back in November and open it on Christmas, so he’ll have something to read. More and more, there are satellite phones that you can pay to use, but the lines are long and the time too short.
There is a danger in calling home at Christmas. You don’t realize it though, until you hear the staccato voice on the other end after the connection has been made. By then it is too late. The unraveling has begun. The conversation is broken with long delays and there is someone standing behind you, waiting for their few minutes to say the same thing you are trying to.
The conversation is empty, yet filled with so much longing that your voice cracks over the phone. Conversations are kept short, tentative, as if testing the water, yet trying not to disturb it by rippling its surface with your own loneliness. In a combat zone, you wrap yourself in this fragile veil of denial, submerge in gallows humor and almost become this other person. The sound of someone familiar back home can unravel it all.
It is not all bad though. There are some unique things about Christmas in a combat zone that can only happen when you are deployed. The simple things in life can take on a much deeper meaning when you are out there. Something as simple as a new pair of socks from a care package or even a Christmas card can brighten your whole day.
So, when a large package arrived for me, I was shocked to see it had come half way around the world from Texas. That box was filled with hundreds of Christmas cards written by students of Ms. Christy Barret’s AVID class at Dobie Middle School in Austin, Texas.
Had I been back home, a Christmas card might sit unopened for a few days, before I got around to opening it. I was not at home though. I was in Iraq and I could tell that these Christmas cards were special.
The box was filled with green and red envelopes, each one addressed to a soldier, a Marine or someone in harms way. I couldn’t believe how many of them there were. I spread them all over my desk and picked out one for myself, one for my Operations Officer and one for my Commander. I then took the rest and put them back in the box and placed them on a shelf above my makeshift plywood desk.
For some reason or another, I did not open the card. Something happened and once again it was back to the grind of combat operations. In fact, I did not even know it was Christmas day, until someone came in and said Merry Christmas. Christmas had come, and brought with it cold winds and a dark, yellow and dusty sky. I couldn’t help, but feel lonely. The phone lines were a mile long and it was clear that there would be no calling home that day. As I sat down in my chair, I looked up and there was the box of cards. I picked up the box and looked over at one of my fellow captains, call sign Mudbug.
“Mudbug,” I said, “We need to get to work delivering these.”
He agreed and we grabbed our M-16′s and walked out the door into the wind-blown sand. The Marines must have thought we were crazy as we went all over the camp, passing out cards to Marines and a few soldiers. The box never seemed to empty and each time I handed out a card, I felt a little bit better. Mudbug and I walked into one of the giant tents that housed our Marines and walked up to each cot, kicked them awake and gave that Marine a card. Many of the Marines were sleeping, escaping the loneliness and boredom by burying their heads under their sleeping bags and wishing for the next day to come. We woke them up anyway and handed them a card.
The smiles we got from them were infectious. The Marines began to exchange cards with one another and read each others aloud. Each one had a hand-written letter from a complete stranger to another complete stranger. Many of the Marines were not much older than the kids who had sent them. Those children’s simple act of writing someone and wishing them a Merry Christmas raised all our spirits. The quiet, dark tent we had entered suddenly came to life. This was Christmas after all, and they had just gotten something unexpected. Something simple, but to them, something meaningful.
I was never able to thank the students of that class, who took the time to write those letters. I wish I did. I don’t think they had any idea when they were writing them, the power that their words would have on so many people or how they would brighten our gloomy day.
War is an ugly thing. You can’t anticipate the ugliness and loneliness, the boredom or the monotony of living day to day. You also can’t anticipate the simple things that can come from the hearts of strangers so far away.
When the box was finally empty, I made my way back to my hooch. One of our Iraqi interpreters came up and asked me in broken English if I was the guy with the Christmas gifts. I told him I didn’t have any gifts. He honestly looked hurt that I didn’t have any for him.
Rather than leave him with nothing, I reached down into my pocket and gave him the card that I had kept aside as my own and said, “Merry Christmas.”
He looked at me in shock, placed his right hand over his heart and said, “Shukran.”
I doubt I’ll ever have a Christmas like that ever again.