Soldiers pray during a candlelight prayer service in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, in celebration of Christmas 2010.
It has become a bittersweet tradition every year to write a Christmas message to our troops who continue to be in harm's way.
With the exception of two major occurrences -- one tragic, the other one welcome -- not much has changed for our troops since last Christmas.
As of this writing and since last Christmas, an additional 307 troops have sacrificed their lives in a war that has now entered its twelfth year.
Fortunately, since last Christmas our men and women who served in another long, costly war (a war that claimed 4,487 American lives, and left more than 32,000 Americans wounded) finally came home to an America that -- although deeply divided over the politics and the policies that put them in harm's way in the first place -- recognized and appreciated their sacrifice and welcomed them home with glad hearts and open arms.
While most Americans would like to see a quick end to the Afghanistan War, tens of thousands of our troops will be spending yet another Christmas away from their loved ones on the cruel battlefields of a land where the Newborn King has not been heard of, battlefields that have already claimed 2162 of our finest.
If these words sound familiar to some readers, it is because I have used them in previous Christmas messages. It is because not much has changed for our troops in recent "Christmases past." It could be because there are only so many ways to express one's thoughts and wishes for those who are once again spending the holiest and most joyous of our holidays in the same hostile land enduring the same unbearable separation from their loved ones.
Therefore, this Christmas I will call to mind thoughts and wishes from those Christmases past -- changed only to reflect the calendar:
As we approach the most joyous and for many of us the most sacred time of the year, we wish each other a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays according to our custom and almost instinctively say, write or sing "Peace on Earth, good will to men."
But what do we say to our troops, our men and women who once again will be spending the holidays on foreign battlefields where peace on earth and good will to men are just cruel incongruities?
What do we say to them since -- just as during the past 11 Christmases -- our nation continues to be at war and there will be little joy and certainly little or no peace for our heroes who will be spending yet another Christmas in harm's way, far from home, far from their loved ones?
Sure, this holiday season will once again evoke many eloquent and touching words, well-meant words that express our most sincere admiration, gratitude, sorrow and well wishes for our troops.
But what do we say that is genuinely new -- that has not already "been said many times, many ways"?
The sacrifices made by our troops in Afghanistan have weighed heavily on my heart and have been foremost in my mind throughout the year and especially around this time of the year.
From the warmth, comfort and safety of my home, I have tried every year to say or write a few words of love, gratitude and encouragement to our troops.
Every Christmas, I also wish them a safe and speedy return home.
For too many, that wish will have to be put on hold for yet another year -- perhaps longer.
Perhaps on this twelfth Christmas, as we run out of adequate words to express our gratitude and our best wishes to our heroes, we may be forgiven once again for borrowing from that classic Christmas Song and for paraphrasing a little bit:
And so we're offering this simple phrase,
For our heroes from Camp Leatherneck to Bagram Field,
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you
Photo: Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense