As Christmas descends upon us, I find myself wrapped up in the more trivial matters of the holiday season -- buying gifts for our sons, planning Christmas activities to do with them, and sketching out some sort of "visitation schedule" for the extended family.
In the silent pauses between these tasks and activities, my mind drifts back in time to past Christmases, particularly the one I spent while deployed to Iraq. It is quite the stark contrast to the Christmases I have now. I remember, though, that my Christmas while deployed years ago is the type of Christmas so many of our service members will experience this year. Currently deployed and at war, these troops will miss the most critical, most special part of the holiday season: family.
I take time to reminisce on that feeling -- that empty feeling I had in Iraq.
I remember that by early December, the air had cooled and the deep heat of October and November
had faded. Warm weather had given way to the cold air and rainy season. The ground of the motor
pool on our Forward Operating Base (FOB), usually a fine dust from an endless train of eight-ton vehicles crushing the earth each day, was thick with mud as this winter rain set in. Our line of tanks casted long shadows across the eastern edge of the FOB, and a hazy, chilled air hung over it.
A week's worth of missions wound down to a cold and rainy Christmas Day in Iraq. One of our soldiers had been killed just days before in a battle in the city of Baqubah. For my platoon, the mission lasted days, and we hadn't returned to the FOB until late on Christmas Eve -- an evening of little significance given the loss we had suffered. Lying frozen in bed that night, I remembered the warmth of home.
I remember rising the next morning to the blinking lights of a miniature Christmas tree I had set up in my room. Memories of the soldier we had just lost, and wonder of the state of his new wife and family, raced through my mind. The thought of the news of his death hitting his family so close to the holiday settled on me, and Christmas seemed so far away.
Most outstanding in my mind is the memory of eating dinner that evening with my soldiers in the
FOB's mess hall. Despite the dining staff's best efforts, Christmas dinner didn't feel much like a special event. Like Thanksgiving, the dining hall had been decorated with colorful streamers, table cloths and centerpieces. But unlike Thanksgiving, I remember that we were not excited by it. We were all exhausted. We had all been in touch with our families and had now felt the vast distance between us and them. No amount of garland or music was going to improve our spirits.
Christmas Day moved into Christmas night, and after dinner at the mess hall, I remember walking
out across the FOB. The night was cold, and the base was dark. It was not Christmas here, not in the neighboring Iraqi towns or in the city of Baqubah. It was just another night amidst war, and our lives, as well as the lives of the Iraqi families, simply passed under the cold stars of winter.
I remember thinking that tomorrow we would be out on patrol again, and each day after that we would move further and further away from Christmas, further and further away from the loss of a fellow soldier that shaped this holiday for us.
Now, as the years pass and my deployment becomes more and more a distant memory, I find that I
reflect less about my time in Iraq and the soldiers we lost. Consumed with the demands of daily life and raising my sons, some days I manage to not think of it at all. But deep down, in those quiet pauses of life I remember that empty feeling, and I remember that there are so many service members that will feel it this Christmas.