Ten years ago I stood over my vast array of Christmas supplies – garlands, tinsel, candy canes, ornaments, a little fake tree, the list goes on – and wondered, would it be enough? The end result was multiple packages stuffed full of what I hoped was enough Christmas cheer to raise the spirits of a certain person in Iraq. Oh, how I agonized over the contents. I mailed it with plenty of time to account for delays and problems, and in the end it reached my deployed soldier with weeks to spare. Did he appreciate it? Yes. Did I overdo it? Yes, just a bit. The items he really loved were the candy canes, the Santa hats, and the Playstation games (come on, people, it was ten years ago). Odds are good he never used most of the decorations; after all he spent more time on missions off the base than he did downtime on base. My heart was in the right place, but when I look back at it, I know I would have done it differently. Here’s why.
This time of the year we’re inundated with sorrowful images of deployed troops sitting alone on fragile cots clutching photos of family members – usually while Silent Night plays in the background. Then there’s the 180 where grinning troops are shown sitting down to rather impressive holiday spreads or attending surprisingly well-done Christmas parties at their sandbox base. So what’s reality? Is a deployed Christmas utter hell on earth or does the brass do their best to make it memorable? The truth is typically somewhere in the middle and depends heavily on your particular deployed soldier’s MOS (and their base). But there are a few things that always ring true.
First comes work. No, Christmas isn’t a day off for reflection and sipping hot cocoa when you’re deployed. Christmas might involve the drudgery of cleaning rifles and dragging through PT or it may involve a mission off-base where Silent Night becomes Not-So-Silent-Thanks-To-Gunfire Night. And while the workload varies, there’s always something to be done. And when night falls and those of us here in the States are enjoying the aftermath of the morning’s frantic wrapping-paper-tearing-frenzy, the base over in the sandbox needs soldiers on guard duty, among other things. There is simply never a time when there aren’t service members working on Christmas.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, to be hard at work on Christmas Day while deployed. For some – myself included – keeping busy is the best way to get through a time that would otherwise involve potentially painful navel-gazing and missing loved ones. Some soldiers embrace the suck (am I allowed to say that? We’ll find out.) while some wish they did have the day off, but it seems the majority would rather be busy than not. Wouldn’t you?
Food tends to fall somewhere between horrible, passable, and slightly above average. Those gorgeous holiday spreads you see splashed across the mainstream media with headlines like “Troops in Afghanistan Celebrate Christmas In Style Thanks To XYZ Company/Group/Organization” are the exception, not the rule. While it’s absolutely fantastic for the soldiers who are able to partake of such a wonderful meal, all too many are left out in the proverbial cold. A few years ago I probably failed wildly in my attempts to console a deployed friend who wasn’t going to participate in such a spread for Thanksgiving because only a set number of troops could be fed and they’d been specifically selected. It wasn’t first-come-first-serve, it was “we pick you and you.” Another friend spent his Christmas one year sitting in a bombed-out house slurping MRE cheese; another received a holiday meal of sorts – all mixed in one plastic-lined tub. Just picture your idea of a basic Christmas meal, and dump it in a box. Shake it up. Now, eat it. Was it a treat next to MREs? Of course it was, but don’t tell me that’s what you’re hoping your deployed soldier is eating: turkey-potato-carrot-roll-in-a-box. The food is going to vary, but the odds of it being a truly great holiday spread are slim. No matter how you slice it, there’s simply no replacement for your mom’s, wife’s, or girlfriend’s cooking.
Gifts vary as well. Some well-meaning souls send deployed soldiers boxes full of the kind of magazines you see abandoned at the doctor’s office or tubes of Sensodyne. Others do manage far more Christmas cheer with decorations, candy, and small gifts. We won’t talk about the rare bottle of…something…that manages to get through the mail system sometimes, or who may or may not have sent it. Being remembered for the holidays is important to everyone deployed; being forgotten hurts more than you might imagine. That’s why organizations such as Adopt a Platoon exist, to ensure deployed service members without family to keep them stocked with cookies and their favorite body wash get some love from the States, too. Christmas packages must be mailed early, though; anything mailed now will be more of a Valentine, at best.
So, what is it most deployed troops wish for at the holidays? Home. They may talk about their longing for a particular Christmas cookie or a pizza from their favorite place, but it’s all about having a piece of home. And although it’s too late now to mail anything for Christmas, there are still ways you can show your love and support thanks to the internet. But before we get into that, a word for those with phone access on December 25th.
The line to use what few phones may be available on base can be a pain on the best days, but on holidays it’s a real nightmare. Soldiers can spend hours waiting for just a few minutes of phone time with their families, and many are going to put on an air of false cheer in an attempt to keep their loved ones upbeat. Think of it as your soldier’s Christmas gift to you: the gift of a forced smile. If you are so fortunate as to get a few minutes on the phone with your deployed service member, don’t spend that time talking about the bills, the leaky faucet, or your child’s latest temper tantrum. The greatest Christmas gift you can give your guy (or girl) on the phone is the gift of a relaxed conversation. Focus on the positives, and let them steer the conversation. If they don’t want to dwell on the events of Christmas morning, odds are it’s because the idea of not being there is more than they can take at that moment. Don’t force it. Let it go. After all, it’s Christmas, and they’re the ones deployed, not you. That’s not to make light of the loneliness that grips families back in the States during the holidays but to say Christmas is an excellent time to be as selflessly cheerful as possible. Complaining about the situation will only make your deployed soldier feel worse, so don’t do it.
Now, the internet. In cases like these, it’s a beautiful thing. Thanks to the internet, dads and moms who are deployed really can watch the kids open presents whether in real time or by emailed video. Photos can be shared with reckless abandon and you can do your best to make your service member feel as much a part of the day as possible. And as nice as it is to hear their voice, you can also chat with them via Facebook Messenger or one of any number of other platforms. You may need to restructure your own sleep schedule to make the timing work – heaven knows I’ve done it – but it’s worth it. And, best of all, you can flood their email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, with Christmas wishes and images until the end result looks like Christmas exploded on their page/wall/inbox. Use the resources available to you to bring Christmas to your deployed service member.
Here’s the thing, though. Not everyone loves Christmas – something I myself had trouble coming to grips with 10 years ago despite his reminders it wasn’t really his thing – and even those that do don’t necessarily want a reminder of what they’re missing. It’s vitally important to pay attention to the cues provided to you by your service member. Ask what they want, and use that – combined with your personal knowledge of their likes and dislikes – to do as they ask. It may not be easy to hear someone would like to pretend Christmas is just another day, but if that’s what it’s going to take to get them through it, you can do it. If your deployed soldier doesn’t want to make a big deal over Christmas, don’t. Trying to cram the holiday down their throat will only frustrate both of you.
Christmas is not a time for mountains of brightly wrapped packages and tangled tsunamis of lights; it’s a time for family. And family, you see, isn’t all about blood, it’s about who stands by you and never leaves. The brotherhood in the military is a wonderful thing, an amazing thing, and the strength it lends those deployed cannot be discounted. Yes, service members miss their families. Yes, there are those moments alone, looking at pictures of someone they love, where a deployed soldier may shed a few tears. But it isn’t all bad; it’s a mixture. If you know someone who’s deployed, let them know you’re thinking of them, whether you’re close friends or casual acquaintances. Although I won’t deny the joys of a bottle of contraband vodka or a box of allowed home-baked Christmas cookies, there’s also something to be said for simply being remembered. Take the time to let your soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine know you’re thinking of them; it means more than you may realize.
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Dr. Seuss
One more word on attitude. Dozens of small, prickly frustrations build up during a deployment. When you’re in the States, maybe you’re frustrated how rarely you speak to your service member or because you don’t know whether a letter or package reached them. You may be annoyed because the toilet overflowed – again – and you spent Christmas Eve with a plunger. Or you may be overwhelmed with sorrow your soldier missed your child’s first steps or won’t be there to take your traditional ride to see Christmas lights. All those emotions are normal, but that doesn’t mean you should vomit them all over a deployed soldier. He can’t plunge a toilet from the sandbox or discipline your child from the ‘Stan; he can’t help that he’s thousands of miles away as you bake cookies and attend Christmas Eve service. While it’s absolutely human to have moments where your cup runneth over, don’t do it on Christmas. If you’re frustrated, grin and bear it; if you’re sad, well, so are they. Sometimes you have to swallow your own frustrations because it’s the right thing to do. Give your service member something to smile about. Tell them about the beauty of the snow or the awesome ten-point buck you took down (hey, some of us enjoy hunting) but don’t dwell on the negatives. Let Christmas be a day of peace and joy, and give your deployed soldier the gift of feeling the full warmth of your love wrapped around them. Because that’s what Christmas is about, not, as the Grinch would say, the packages, boxes, or bags.
Merry Christmas from all of us here at US Patriot Tactical; Merry Christmas, and to all, deployed or stateside, a good night.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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