Combat Christmas

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the season to be jolly…I'll be home for Christmas…Gonna' be a blue
Christmas without you…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah!" Call it a modified holiday carol for the families
of American soldiers who are currently working on freeing Iraq (aka,
America's Other Vietnam). The holiday season is inescapable to almost
all Americans as well as many other populations across the world.
And who among us do not try to make this a special time of the year?
Even the Scroogiest of us will bend over backwards to give our children
and loved ones a special holiday experience. The American soldier
in Iraq, however, knows better than to dwell on the thought of his/her
Christmases past or present.

I am 35 years away from experiencing the holidays as a combat soldier,
I believe I can still relate to our American families and soldiers
who are spending this holiday season at war. There are a number
of topics that soldiers know not to discuss with their comrades.
Soldiers do not talk about the things they miss the most because
it is counterproductive and too painful. Soldiers know not to talk
about missing their wife/husband, or their children, or their mom's
home cooking. There are a number of morbid topics that are taboo
as well because there is an unwritten law of self-protection stating
not to visit those issues.

the soldier on the line and in the midst of the worst of the daily
battle December 25th will come and go just like every
other day came and went. The best way to avoid getting sucked into
the doldrums of missing family and freedom during the holidays is
to just get as busy as possible at something and not think about
what is being missed. In fact, the busier the soldier gets, the
better it is for him/her. The goal is to maintain your sanity through
the holiday season and if not thinking about the situation achieves
that goal, then that is what you must do. Crying is an emotional
response the well-focused soldier simply cannot afford.

here is what the combat soldier is likely doing for the holidays:
Chances are if he/she is involved in close combat (like clearing
the enemy out of buildings, mosques, etc.) our soldier has not had
a hot shower for weeks. Meals consist of MRE's (meals ready to eat),
combined with whatever indigenous rations can be found. Real sleep
is a distant, foggy memory. Resting and relaxing are pleasures almost
forgotten. Even using a flush toilet is a memory one might cherish.
Just being able to be alone with one's own quiet thoughts is an
unobtainable luxury. The burden of exhaustion weighs more heavily
than the 50–70 pound ever-present load of gear the troops carry.
They are past the point where one feels "tired" as one
might if they drove through the night non-stop. That itchy, crusty
feeling you get in your eyes have after an all-nighter is a normal,
constant sensation for the soldiers. Absent good rest, they are
pulling all-nighters every day they remain in combat. Add the stress
of knowing whether or not you pull the trigger on your weapon at
any moment may determine whether you or the enemy will be alive
tomorrow. Mixed into that stressor is the knowledge that a news
reporter's camera might catch you making the wrong decision as you
do what you have been trained and conditioned to do.

the close combat situations, an infantryman walks with his weapon
on automatic. This way when the trigger is pulled a shot burst of
a few to several rounds are fired, rather than a single shot. It
increases the soldier's chances of survival but decreases the enemy's
chance of seeing another day. For safety, the trigger finger is
kept off the trigger completely until it is time to fire. The price
one pays for carrying a weapon on automatic is a tightness across
the upper back muscles. Over time this tightness develops into a
knot that will not go away. This price may seem high but the stakes
are high as well. It has become second nature for the soldier to
be constantly aware of where his/her first joint of the trigger
finger is at all times. That portion of the index finger has developed
an unusual sensitivity and control. The maintenance required to
keep a soldier's body on high alert 24/7 for extended periods takes
a physical toll. It contributes a great deal to total exhaustion.

throw in the notion that today's soldiers do not know when they
will leave the war thanks to the backdoor draft that was sold under
the title "stop loss." Stop loss is the policy that prevents
soldiers from completing their military obligations regardless of
the contracts Uncle Sam gave them. It is another way of saying "You
ain't coming home until George Bush says you can. You volunteered
for military service so stop belly-aching!" All of these factors
combine for a snapshot definition of stress and apprehension.

act of self-indulgence for the soldier might be to open and consume
a can of peaches received in a care package from home. A new pair
of socks and undies would equal the best toy currently waiting under
many Christmas trees in America. Having a wholesome, tasty meal
at a table would be a fantasy come true. Feeling safe enough to
get some deep, restful sleep is unthinkable.

on a long reconnaissance mission in The Mekong Delta (Vietnam I),
I set out to describe something I was missing from home to my teammate.
It was an act of torture in a way, but it helped to make the night
pass. Using great descriptive detail, I told my buddy how sometimes
after a huge holiday meal, I would go into the kitchen in the night
and without turning the bright room lights on would use the glow
of the refrigerator light to make a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich from
the meal's leftovers. I described getting the meats, the mayonnaise,
the mustard, and other accoutrements from the refrigerator. Then
I would find the homemade bread (a special treat for holiday meals);
slice a couple of fat slices, and then proceeded to assemble the
masterpiece. All of this was accomplished with the subdued, yet
magical illumination of the open refrigerator. Then the feast was
enjoyed at the kitchen table in the dark. By the time I finished
with the description, we were both groaning from our stomachs telling
us to send down some real food. My friend called me a few ungracious
names for my gratuitous story but also thanked me for stirring up
some good memories and for helping to pass the time.

have thought about that incident many times since then. I think
of the men and women in today's combat and I know they are hurting
for the same small (and large) creature comforts we take for granted
every day. Maybe it would do well for the supporters of The Iraq
War and for the supporters of George (still doesn't get it) Bush's
re-election to give pause this holiday season and just think about
what our troops are experiencing. When our comfortable civilians
go to the refrigerator after their great holiday meal to make their
nocturnal sandwich, let them consider the implications of supporting
wars and supporting those who invent wars. This may seem like a
small thing but we can all associate with having the freedom and
luxury of a good sandwich in our own kitchen. We should know also
that many of our fellow Americans are missing this privilege in
the belief they are doing the right thing in their service to America.

suggest our president go to his refrigerator one night this holiday
week and try to experience what I have described, though I am not
sure chicken hawks like sandwiches.

16, 2004

Woolley [send him mail]
is a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Miami, Florida. He served
with the 9th Infantry Division in The Mekong Delta in
a Ranger unit doing reconnaissance 1968–69 where he received
a gunshot wound to the head leaving one side severely paralyzed.
He is a father of four grown children and grandfather of seven,
including a set of triplets.

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