Sunday, December 18, 2005
The week leading up to Christmas, whether you engage in the secular or religious observance of the day, is usually a period of anxious confusion for most people. Events are being planned, attended or supplied. Last minute gifts are being purchased, rooms decorated and greetings exchanged. As daylight grows shorter, people hurry about to complete the last tasks to ensure a family gathering, no matter how small, is a happy event.
For one group of people, however, this is hell week. They too, look at the calendar and see December 25th. They too, are thinking of gifts, of decorated houses, of anxious kids and of a family gathered for a cultural feast. And thinking about it makes their situation worse, because all of those things are thousands of miles and a cultural world away from the reality of their situation. They will, if they are lucky, share Christmas with a husband, wife, kids or lover by way of a 5 or 10 minute phone call. They will, despite the numbers of people around them, become lonely and at times, driven to tears.
They are the people we have sent to the hell holes of this world. They are the young men and women we ask to place themselves on the killing fields to effect change. They are the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who are fighting wars, keeping the peace, disarming factions and facing extreme danger amongst populations and cultures most of us don't even understand. They could be American, Canadian, British, Dutch, Australian or any other of the nationalities who have deployed their armed services. To them, December 25th holds the same significance as it does to those of us at home, but unlike us, it will pass slowly and often, painfully - a feeling shared by those at home hoping for a loved one's safe return. Many will have the modicum of a day off, a mass gathering for dinner in barracks or mess, some festivity and then a return to routine. It isn't home though, so it will always be remembered as a "Christmas away". For others it will be Christmas day on duty, on watch or on the flight-line. For a significant number it will be a day no different from all others on the calendar - a day on patrol.
I have led that Christmas day patrol. It's the same as all other patrols and, at the same time, very different. While patrolling is always dangerous, that departure from camp on Christmas morning to patrol the streets or perimeter of an unsafe area brings its own special dangers and fears. While everyone says they are focused on the mission, the truth is, everyone is thousands of miles away. Concentration is difficult to maintain. As on every patrol, the members fear the reality of an ambush, a sniper, a landmine and these days, a suicide bomber, but the fear is exacerbated by the dread of it happening on this day. Nobody wants to die, but they especially don't want the letter home to read, "Killed 25 December...".
Throughout the entire patrol each member will, in his or her own mind, visualize home and curse the son-of-a-bitch that sent them there, knowing he is living well, comfortable and safe. They will curse those who are not sharing the fact that it is too cold, or too hot or too wet. They will curse the comfort you enjoy while they worry about having enough water to make it through the mission. They will curse you for your safety while they put their life at certain risk. And they will silently beg to be able to make it back to camp without incident. On this day, "just leave us alone".
They will count the kilometers, watch the rooftops, and keep their eyes on the ground ahead. They will wish their helmet was more comfortable, and wish their LBV or PLCE was a better fit around the chest. While they would like to be home now, they know they do not want to be pulled out early with a sucking chest wound, a missing limb or worst of all, inside a rubber bag. They just want to make it through the worst day of the year.
And then it will be over. Another day will be scratched off thousands of calendars and the tour will be one less day and a wake-up. And on the next patrol, the sentry won't say, "Merry Christmas, guys," and no patrol member will answer with, "Yeah sure. Ho ho, fuckin' ho."
To the men and women of this world who do that horrible job, please stay safe. Keep your eyes open, your head down and above all, keep your powder dry.
All of us thank you.