“Not Home for the Holidays”
The holidays are the most difficult time for anyone serving in the military to be away from home – especially while in a war zone. No matter how much the services try to give one the feeling of home by decorating, playing holiday music or preparing the traditional meals of the season, it can never make up for not sharing with one’s family while they are celebrating on the home front.
I can speak personally, since I have spent all three of my Thanksgiving holidays on an Army post in New Jersey, South Vietnam and Arizona. I have also had to spend two Christmas seasons on an Army base. Fortunately, the last one was in Arizona with my new wife, who I married just 6 weeks previously, after returning home from Vietnam. But for us, it was still more than 2,000 miles from our families and friends.
I can still recall Christmas Day, 1969 at Camp Eagle in Northern I Corps, South Vietnam. Bob Hope was on his way to entertain the troops. We received a call from our Captain the day before asking for a “volunteer” to stand guard duty during the show. Since no one volunteered from my group, it was decided that the one who had arrived in-country last would perform the duty. Since I arrived at Camp Eagle on November 2nd, I was chosen to volunteer. Not only did I miss the show while sitting on that lonely berm line with about 20 or 30 other unfortunates, but, I also had to watch as Bob Hope’s helicopter flew into Camp Eagle and out of the Camp a few hours later. It was a very frustrating and disappointing day. The only advantage to all of this was that the returning guards got to partake in a Christmas feast of turkey and all the trimmings before anyone else in the Camp. It was a Christmas that will always be remembered with disappointment of missing a show hosted by a man who spent many holiday seasons away from home.
I have asked a few of my Veteran friends to share their holiday experiences.
Matt Pruitt served with the Navy during Enduring Freedom in 2002 and he recollects “While recalled to active duty to COMUSNAVCENT in Manama Bahrain. "Such a hollow yet proud feeling leaving my family with only 7 days notice and going to serve my country’s diplomatic interest in a foreign country. You quickly come up to speed, roll up your sleeves and execute the commander’s mission. Then 3-4 months later you begin to reflect on the home and business front. I did not realize how emotional I could be given my nature to get out in front and be the point person for the mission at hand. However, reflection on missing my daughters’ birthday and their class events such as shows began to takes its toll. Then came the 4th of July and man I just wanted my feet on the soil of the FREE and the HOME OF THE BRAVE. Still I would miss the kids going back to school and then my son's birthday along with Thanksgiving and the gathering of family and friends. Then guilt entrenched itself in me because the love of my life had just served double and triple duty in our family during my absence and I felt as though I had shirked my "HUSBAND" responsibility. By the grace of GOD, my positional relief showed up and I was home 2 days before Christmas of 2002 and while reunited with my family again, I sat by the tree and fire and thought, "... man the guy who relieved me from duty in Bahrain is now missing his family for Christmas....... !"
John Van Horn recalls “The worst part of being deployed for me was missing the birth, first words, and first steps of my daughter Stephanie. It broke my heart not to be there, but I had to tell/convince myself that serving my country in trying times was somehow more important. Lucky for me Stephanie is a beautiful healthy young woman today.”
Ed Krensel served in Korea, “Being away from home for two years while serving in the Army during holidays and birthdays were sometimes filled with angst. This forced us to create a sense of camaraderie with our fellow soldiers to alleviate some of the loneliness.”
Matt Fisher, past VFW Post 175 Commander – “My first experience away from family for the holidays, I was 22, a lieutenant/platoon leader in Korea in 1996. My buddies and I went down to the local bar and hung out and drank beer, exchanged stories from back home and had a great time. Spending that time with close buddies from the military gives you a piece of home.
Weyman Wong of California -- The time was Christmas, 1965. At the beginning of 1965 there were only about 30,000 US in Nam, mostly in advisory capacities of one sort or another. In mid-year LBJ decided we had to go in, so the pouring of troops started the last quarter of the year to find nearly 200,000 in country by year's end. I was the lucky recipient of that decision and arrived the first week of November to an outlying Army Special Forces camp in Binh Long Province, bivouacked there as a USAF medical officer leading a team of 16 to provide care for the natives, as the majority of native docs had been drafted for the war effort to leave the natives high and dry without medical care. We would carry out LBJ's mission of winning hearts and minds and put an end to spreading communism. With the exception of two seasoned senior sergeants all of us were young and under 27 years old, the youngest barely 20. With the exception of these two sergeants this was the first overseas deployment for the rest of us. Unlike the current situation in Afghanistan, we had no instant communication with home, no email, no telephone, nada. What we had was daily mail call. It didn't matter that the news from home was a week or more old. It just mattered that we still had a link to loved ones. Alas, while most had daily mail, I only had a weekly letter from my wife. Before I'd left, we'd discussed it, and I wanted her to devote all her time to our two toddlers, my daughter a year old and my son 2 1/2 years old. "Don't waste that precious time writing letters to me," I'd urged. "Once a week for updates is sufficient." This is the sort of noble spirit gained from listening to the antics of the Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Roy Rogers, Batman, Hawkeye, etc. during my childhood years. Life, goals, and values were different then. There were no voices urging the narcissism preached today. Hence, I was the brunt of many a joke, as others in camp reveled in their daily mail watching me pining for my once weekly letter.
Karl Von Bueren, US Navy -- “I gave this some thought and it seems to me that being away from home and my family might actually feel worse now than it did back then. In the Navy there are really only two major conditions for Sailors assigned to shipboard duty. You are either deployed onboard your ship, or preparing (training, usually called work-ups) for an overseas deployment. In either case, the ship is underway and away from its home port. The time immediately after returning home from a deployment was set aside for Sailors to take some leave, but that always seemed very short. So I guess we didn’t have very much opportunity to think about it at the time.
I count myself as pretty lucky as my ship seemed to somehow get back to port for Christmas, but I can remember being underway and out to sea for Thanksgiving. Today’s Sailors have the benefit of almost instant electronic communication to their family’s back home instead of the mail service with a delay of weeks to hear from home like we had. But today the OPTEMPO for them is higher than ever, so again I count myself as lucky.
Rich Scott – VFW Post 175 Commander, USMC, Vietnam “I left Okinawa to go "down south" on the day after Thanksgiving 1967. It was obviously a "Sentimental Journey" having just left the family. Christmas 67 was just a blur being new "in country." The following Thanksgiving was a run up to departing RVN (Republic of Vietnam) and that too became sentimental preparing to leave a new family (Marines, friends and buddies) to rejoin my existing family. Departed RVN 9 December 68 where the temperature on the flight line was 115 degrees and arrived in Philadelphia 12 December, 68 (4 days later including crossing the date line) and the temperature was 15 degrees. What a change!
Doug Reilly -- “I was in Baghdad in December of 2004, for us Christmas Eve fell just eleven days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, while all of us soldiers were still somewhat satisfied with that success. We had been away from our loved ones since January and in theater since March. It is very cold and lonely in a mud covered desert around Christmas time. On Christmas Eve I remember getting to go to Midnight Mass with a few of my fellow soldiers. This was the first and only chance I got to go during the entire deployment. I remember missing my family and loved ones on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving but none were close to the emptiness I felt on Christmas Morning in Iraq.
I remember my brother, Rich, was serving in Georgia during the Cuba Missile crisis. He came home for both Christmas holidays but the second one was a little more adventurous. His commanding officer did not give permission to take leave but he allowed a three day pass over the holiday because Rich had told that he was going to visit a girl he had met from Sylvania GA. He drove home and could not return on time due to a huge snow storm. He got flak from his C.O. Who said “I signed out for Sylvania not Pennsylvania.” Luckily, No other discipline was given. Rich did miss two Thanksgiving holidays and said, “I did miss the Thanksgivings because the turkey in the mess hall wasn't half as good as homemade”.
Jesse James Wallace -- Austin, Texas – Vietnam Veteran “I made it home for Christmas in 1968 but I did miss five other Christmases, six Birthdays and Thanksgiving holidays. Yes, I had the blues and suffered loneliness in a bad way. Standing in the jungle rain, wishing that I had a piece of turkey or even just a chicken leg. Like clockwork, Charlie would drop mortars at 8AM, Noon and 4PM every day. On 17 December 1968 out of Cam Rahn Bay, I had a 28 day leave. I was scared to think about coming home during the holiday season. After 43 years, I still remember.
Just a little background about my friend Jesse. I met him several years ago on the internet while searching for 101st Airborne Division members. His story is one that will be told by me in the future. He is a hero in my eyes and was wounded severely on Hamburger Hill --- Hill 937. This siege is dramatized in the movie of the same name -- “Hamburger Hill”
Thanks to all who have shared their experiences with me.
When one reflects on the times spent away from home during the holidays, we must remember that so many did not come home to enjoy these holidays with their families after serving their country. Countless men and women died during holiday seasons. In fact, there are at least 52 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial who were lost on Christmas Day alone during the length of that war.
We all know how important it is to have friends and families around us during the holiday season. Let us not forget to remember the men and women of our military serving away from home or in a military hospital recovering from wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
I cannot imagine how a mother or father must feel having their child serve in harm’s way during the holidays, be it Christmas, Chanukah, a birthday, etc. Families with uncles, aunts, sons and daughters serving today deserve as much recognition as their returning warriors.
I would like to share the following poem that I wrote about a friend who was the first one in my Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown to die in Vietnam.
I was on my way to work just before Christmas when I heard "Away in a Manger" on the radio. For some reason, I thought about my friend who was killed in Nam and the words just flowed. I dedicate this to Charles Glenn III and all of those whose names emblazon the Black Granite Wall in D.C.
Away In a Bunker
Away in a bunker
A board for his bed
The US peacekeeper
Lay down his tired head
His vigil is lonely
His family home safe
10,000 miles yonder
Away from this place
No enemy to be seen
No guns fire this night
It’s Christmas all over
This war land tonight
In ten months he’ll be home
Away from the battle
That keeps him awake nights
With a bone-chilling rattle
He’ll be with his family
The next Christmas Eve
To share with the children
In Santa believe
But then comes the rocket
That ends his young life
The VC have conquered
And caused family strife
His body now lies
In a war hero’s grave
With one lonely marker
To honor the brave
He’ll never know Christmas
Or feel the warm sun
Away in a bunker
His deed is now done
© Bob Staranowicz