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A Christmas Story

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Every year at this moment, the world begins to synchronize. Our many different cultures notwithstanding, there's something about the holidays that makes the planet communal. Even nations that do not celebrate Christmas can't help but be caught up in the collective spirit of their neighbors, as twinkling lights dot the landscape and carols fill the air. It's an inspiring time of the year.

And yet my thoughts always return to those families that have an empty seat at the dinner table. Currently, there are more than 160,000 American military personnel deployed in more than 150 countries around the globe, leaving their families to celebrate the holidays with out them. Despite our ever-connective technology, neither Skype nor Facebook -- not even a telephone call -- can come close to the joy of being with loved ones in person.

This is one of the great ironies of military service, I suppose: that even as the brave women and men of the military serve and protect us, they are separated by oceans and mountains from those they care about most deeply.

Still, there is something indomitable about the Christmas spirit -- and it connects all of us. In 2006, I published a book of personal essays called The Right Words at the Right Time: Vol. 2: Your Turn!, which included the story you'll find below. Set in the most unexpected of locations, nearly 9000 miles from our shores, it speaks not only to the nobility of our military, but also to the truest heart of the Christmas season. I hope you like it.

And to all of the women and men serving overseas, we wish you the happiest of holidays. We thank you, we miss you, and we pray for your safety.

* * *

A Silent Night in Vietnam

By Stephen T. Banko, III
Buffalo, New York

For me, Christmas was always in the music.

From those innocent days in grade school--where the nuns drilled the words of every carol in Christendom into our brains--until today, I have always found great delight in the songs of Christmas, in the power of their message and the unbridled joy they bring.

My most enduring memories of Christmas still sing to me. The holiday seemed so much simpler back in the South Buffalo of my childhood, when the annual pageant was followed by a cup of ice cream, some Christmas cookies, and an hour-long carol sing. It didn't matter to anyone that puberty had rendered the male voices in our chorale more akin to a pond full of bullfrogs than to the Vienna Boys Choir. The real essence wasn't in the voices anyway. It was in the hope and promise of the words.

Less than a decade later--half a world away from the well-scrubbed faces of my grade-school friends, and a lifetime away from those sweet classroom singalongs--I would spend a far different Christmas under the strange spell of carols and morphine. I was a patient at the Air Force hospital in Yokota, Japan. That was the good news. The bad news was that precious few of my fellow troopers in the 7th Cavalry had been that fortunate. After five hours of furious combat, I had lost virtually every friend I'd had in Vietnam. And now I was on the verge of losing both my leg and my sanity.

I'd been inducted into the Army on April 20, 1967. I was a typical draftee, expected by my family to go, with no questions asked. It was a rite of passage.

But I felt conflicted: I was the only one among my friends in our conservative Irish-Catholic community who thought the war was a bad idea. Living in Buffalo, near the crossing into Canada, I had walked over the famous Peace Bridge on many occasions to play hockey. I could've easily walked into Canada to avoid the draft, and never once looked back. But I didn't. I went because that's what I was supposed to do.

Although I wasn't anxious to ship off to 'Nam, I was happy to leave the stateside army with its polished shoes and mandatory haircuts. That kind of discipline wasn't for me. A change of venue was appealing even though I had no idea what would happen.

We arrived in Vietnam in January 1968. I was a Sergeant E5, an infantry squad leader in charge of 12 guys. Most of them were 18 or 19 years old; I was 22. Compared to them, I'd been around. I often regaled them with stories from back home. Their favorite ones were about my Florida spring break escapades. I had to tell those over and over.

But my guys also came to me with their personal problems. I became a lot more than their commanding officer. I was like a big brother, a father, and a teacher all rolled into one.

By the time we survived our first two battles, we had all become very close. I now had my justification for being in Vietnam: to protect these kids, to keep my men alive. As a sergeant, I made this my mission.

On December 3rd, 1968, the 368th North Vietnamese Army battalion ambushed our unit in a small clearing near the Song Be River. The first bullet entered my leg at 11 a.m., instantly breaking it. The second bullet hit at 2:30 p.m., two-and-a-half inches away from the first wound. By then, all of the medics in our unit were dead. They were usually the first to go, the bravest of the brave. I'd used all of my bandages on the other men in my unit, so the only thing I had to stop the bleeding in my leg was elephant grass. I bound my knee with it, and the bleeding eventually stopped. But my leg became horribly infected.

Only three guys from our unit of 12 survived. And from the rest of our platoon--40 guys I'd come to know really well--86 percent died that day.

My whole reason for being there was gone. I had failed the very boys I'd promised myself I'd protect, and I had serious survivor guilt. My kneecap had been shot off, I had shrapnel wounds and burns all over my body, but worse than anything, I was eaten up by the memory of those boys. I was emotionally devastated.

Through four operations, doctors struggled to save my leg and give me some semblance of hope. Although my universe had been turned upside down by the annihilation of my unit, I was uplifted by the care of the nurses at the 34th Evacuation Hospital, who were slowly working me back toward health. They had become my friends and were planning a picnic for us on Christmas day.

Then once again, my world spun crazily out of control. I was abruptly sent off to Japan where a new team of orthopedic surgeons would try to save my leg. My stretcher was loaded onto the airplane with the other wounded. We were stacked four high, and the plane was uncomfortable and noisy. I felt totally adrift.

When I finally arrived at this strange, new hospital at Yokota Air Force Base, it was nighttime. I was in a lot of pain. I was also frightened, not knowing if I was about to become an amputee. The date was December 24th, Christmas Eve.

I was despondent. This wasn't just another day on the calendar for me. Our family always opened gifts on Christmas Eve, and yet now I was alone in the starkest, bleakest sense of the word.

I began to think about my life, and how fate had landed me in this strange place. I was angry about what I'd endured in the jungles of Southeast Asia. There was no magnificent glory to losing a limb. This entire war experience was not the great romantic crusade we'd been led to believe it would be.

My feeling of isolation grew. The patients were not talking to each other, and the nurses didn't speak with us either. The only sound was the American programs playing on the overhead TV. I remember watching Bonanza. The Cartwright family was speaking Japanese. Everyone on the ward was fixed on that singular flickering image.

I became aware of the music just after Bonanza ended. Piped in over the P.A. system, it had begun quietly at first. Then it seemed to get louder. Finally, the songs began to fill the room like a gentle blanket of snow.

The First Noel. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Bit by bit, the carols began to restore a tiny measure of familiarity to this very different environment. I could almost believe in Joy to the World, and for a second I thought I could smell the fresh cut fir trees of my youth.

Just then, I noticed a barely audible moan coming from the bed next to me. I'd been so absorbed in my own agony, that I was oblivious to the fact that others were enduring the same pain, if not worse.

I looked over at the neighboring bed. The soldier in it was covered in plaster from the top of his head down to his knees. The only openings in the enormous body cast were cutouts for his eyes, nose and mouth. His arms were plastered all the way to his wrists, with metal rods holding them away from his body. Slowly, I became aware that the Christmas songs I'd been enjoying--with their messages of hope and love and triumph--were being steadily punctuated by the sounds of pain and suffering throughout the ward.

I looked again at the man next to me. While others in the room screamed out in anguish, he could barely groan. I couldn't imagine what kind of horrible trauma had left him this way; what terrible pain was engulfing his body; what hopes and dreams of his may have been crushed by the brutality of his injury. As bad as I thought I had it--my leg shot to pieces, the burns and wounds, the fevers--I was lying next to a guy who had it worse than I did. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I listened to the Christmas music, so full of hope and love. I knew my two Silver Stars and Purple Heart wouldn't mean anything to that kid. I wasn't even sure what they meant to me anymore. I had to do things in combat that haunted me. I had killed people.

My mind was wrapped around all kinds of thoughts, most of them not very good. At moments like this, the mind can't save you. Only the heart can.

Before long, the nurses came through the ward with sleep and pain medications. Just as they dimmed the lights, the beautiful strains of Silent Night descended on the room, closing out Christmas Eve 1968.

"Silent Night, Holy Night...."

Suddenly, my pain and loneliness didn't seem so important. I asked the nurse if she could move my bed a little closer to the man next to me. She gave me a quizzical look, but complied.

I reached out and took my new friend's hand.

"All is calm, all is bright..."

No words were spoken. None were necessary. That's the saving grace of music. Music speaks to the heart in ways that words can't. And in that moment, it spoke to me clearly. It told me I could still make a difference in one soldier's life.

For the first time that Christmas season, I believed I might leave Vietnam with enough humanity intact to start over. For the first time in a very long time, I really wanted to.

After a few seconds, I felt a gentle tightening of the hand in mine.

For me, Christmas will always be in the music.

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