This is the 12th consecutive Christmas U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan. Several times over those years many thoughtful Americans have authored poems, dedicated works of art, and used other creative forms to honor uniformed service members. But as time has passed, I fear "our troops" have morphed into a caricature that obscures the sometimes profound burden that has been placed upon the men and women wearing those uniforms. I seek communicate a view of this war -- a somewhat dark, unpleasant view -- that will make a few uncomfortable.
Many Americans will be shocked to learn that since 9/11 more than 57,000 U.S. troops have been killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent estimates indicate more than 300,000 others suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Suicides are at an all-time high. Soldier families suffer indescribable pain and suffering from dealing with those hundreds of thousands of casualties. But to most of us the above is a stat sheet; merely numbers. We are unable to relate to what those numbers mean in a practical, emotional, and spiritual sense.
As best I can this Christmas, I seek to open the briefest of windows allowing you to see what some of those patriotic Americans feel who do the fighting and dying on behalf of this nation. May this broaden your understanding and empathy; may this deepen your appreciation of the men, women, and family members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
I am standing alone, in complete darkness, on a stage. It is cold. Very cold. From somewhere above the stage a very dim spotlight begins to illumine my face. I can now see my frosty breath in the cold air; I fold my arms a bit tighter to try and chase the cold. Other lights appear and the set around me comes into focus.
I am standing in a field which is under a heavy blanket of snow. It is mostly flat but with slight undulations. Only a few clumps of trees in the distance disturb the horizon. There is no wind. The sky is a uniform and lifeless gray; it is hard to distinguish exactly where the sky ends and the snow begins. Nothing can be seen moving. To my left runs a long wooden fence stretching as far as the eye can see, continuing behind me and to the right. Something catches my eye near one of the fence posts that is indeed out of place: a man sitting on the ground in the snow!
Though he was not aware of my presence, I could see him in detail. His legs were extended in front of him, but were covered with snow; only the tips of his boots could be seen. He had apparently been there for some time as snow drifts had buried him up to the waist; closer examination also revealed he was injured. His right hand lay mangled and limp by his side, partially covered in snow. It was bloated and an unpleasant shade of blue -- likely lost forever to frostbite.
He appeared to be in his early 20s with sandy blonde hair and eyes that were a pleasant combination of blue and green. He was shivering noticeably from the cold but otherwise sat motionless. His coat looked as though it had been opened at the top for some reason but then carelessly and improperly thrown back together in such a way that it did not seal. I felt a chill as I realized how cold he must be. Upon closer examination I discovered he was wearing a military jacket: this was a soldier!
A quick scan of the surroundings did not reveal what had happened; why was this trooper here and what had caused his injury? His eyes were focused on nothing in particular; they merely looked ahead, blank and empty. Then I noticed a movement, ever so slight, in his face. I moved closer. His lower lip began to quiver and then a tear formed in his eye. It was then I saw the house to my right, not far behind the soldier.
It was a warm house; something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Through the large, bay window facing the street I could see a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The lights and ornaments were perfectly arrayed in golds, greens, reds, and silvers. From within the house gathered a family and in the background even from outside I could hear the muffled sound of Christmas carols.
I could see an elderly gentleman with white hair and a large moustache; his face was kind and exuded warmth, happiness, and wisdom. He was serving a piece of pie to a young girl, maybe 10, in a pretty red Christmas dress with white trim around the neck and waist; she had the cutest red and green bow affixed to the top of her pony tail. Several others filled the room, and all were dressed in their most cheerful Christmas clothes; they were all so full of joy.
Yet all were oblivious to the wounded soldier who sat shivering in the agonizing cold, mere yards from their festive celebration.
From his near-paralyzed position in the snow, with great difficulty and in obvious pain, the young man turned his head around to look across the street into the window. Tears formed in both eyes until he closed them tightly, squeezing a noticeable flow of water down each cheek. He began to meekly cry; it was so cold he couldn't fully control his quivering lips, and drool slid down his chin as he slumped back to his original position against the post. It was a gut-wrenching experience for me. The boy was experiencing biting loneliness and agony, but had only enough strength left for the stuttering, barely audible cry.
After he'd settled back against the fence post, something changed. The emotions of loneliness and misery began to drain from his face leaving an empty, emotionless stare in their wake. I saw his eyes turn cold; the color draining from the blue-green hue I had seen earlier to something akin to steel gray. My heart ached.
His spirit was dying before my eyes.
Why didn't anyone from the house help him? How could they not see him? Had they but looked they would have recognized his plight. I wanted so desperately to remove his agony; to restore him to health and strength. I was sure that in another time, in another place he must have been an energetic, fun-loving kid. All I now wanted was to rescue him; to bring him into the Christmas house. When he had looked back at the house, it appeared to me he knew the family gathered inside.
Suddenly the lights on the stage began to dim: I was losing him. The lights of the warm house fell dark, the gray light of the sky expired, and finally the soldier was left on the stage alone. I leaned in closer, my face now only inches from his.
He seemed older now. I noticed lines and wrinkles on his face. The lights above him continued to darken. I looked desperately into his eyes, searching for what I did not know. All I could do was watch helplessly as the light continued to fade from my brother's face. I felt so very small.
His eyes told me he knew the end was near and that help would not arrive. I continued to peer into his eyes, tears streaming out of my own, fists clenched in the snowy cold, pleading to God to save this valiant man... I continued to watch intently as the last vestiges of light evaporated from the stage.
I was left, alone, in the dark; heartbroken.