Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas at War

Friends and fellow Americans:

There is nothing lonelier than being a soldier who is immersed in a world of war while your family is forced to celebrate the holidays without you. It is important that we remember our warriors each and every day, but especially during this time of the year.

Having lived this experience during the Vietnam War, I wrote about it for the Orlando Sentinel last year. With friends who are serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I would like to share it with you again this year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

SFC Chuck Grist

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
December 25, 2005

On Christmas Eve in 1970, I stood on the bunker line at a firebase near Xuan Loc, South Vietnam. I had been playing poker with other soldiers, but I needed a break. Only 21, I was thinking about all the Christmases I had enjoyed at home in Orlando. With a cigar in one hand and a beer in the other, I stood quietly in the darkness and stared at the moon and the stars.

My holiday moment was interrupted by the sound of automatic weapons fire. A firefight began in a small village nestled in the jungle valley below. Then I saw the tracers.

A friendly unit was firing at the enemy and the red tracers from their weapons streamed through the air toward their target. Then the enemy fired back and the green tracers from their weapons crossed the path of the red tracers, creating a colorful, though deadly scene.

With the sarcasm only an American G.I. at war could muster, I looked at the Christmas colors filling the valley with bullets and softly sang, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.”

Events may keep a soldier busy during Christmas in a war zone, but the holiday season is a lonely time for the American warrior. Standing in his wrinkled, dusty uniform, he sees the same moon and the same stars that look down on his family back home. He remembers the warmth and joy of the holidays, and childhood memories flood his heart with a confusing mix of both happiness and emptiness.

Unfortunately, the grim realities of war and the larger task of just staying alive cause him to push those softer and gentler times aside. To do otherwise risks the unpleasant possibility that the soldier will never again enjoy another Christmas at home.

Thankfully, the military tries to bring some of the holiday spirit to the troops. Depending on where they serve, service members may get as much as a USO show or as little as a CD with Christmas music. After all, listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” means as much to us as it did to our fathers and grandfathers.

Every effort will be made to give our men and women in uniform a traditional holiday meal. They will open packages and gifts sent by both family and strangers, and the contents will be shared with their buddies. They will discover once again how much they are appreciated for their service to the nation.

Those in military service never forget where they were or what they were doing during their Christmas at war. They know what they are missing at home, but imprinted forever on their souls will be the reason for missing it. They have a strong sense of pride in their mission and that pride will help fill many of those deep valleys of loneliness.

War is a terrible ordeal for all Americans, especially those with loved ones at risk. As our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers and neighbors in the military face the greatest challenge of their lives, we must set aside our feelings about war to make sure they get all the love and support they need to carry on.

It does not matter whether it is a beach in France, a hill in Korea, a rice paddy in Vietnam, a desert in Iraq or a mountain in Afghanistan. What matters is that our warriors are not with us during this special time. Instead, they are putting their lives on the line, making sure that we will spend our Christmas morning in peace and safety.

At the end of a bountiful Christmas Day, we will look up at a golden moon and bright stars that shine over a free America. We must not forget that lonely soldier who is taking off his helmet and wiping his brow as he gazes at the heavens and thinks of home.

SFC Chuck Grist

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