Combat Christmas

"'Tis 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.

Although 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.

For 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.

So 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.

In 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.

Now 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.

An 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.

While 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.

I 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.

I 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.

December 16, 2004