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When duty takes you away from home during the holidays

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

Soldiers from the 45th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters and the 700th Brigade Support Battalion, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team open Christmas cards. (Photo from The U.S. Army)

Even during the holidays, activities do not stop in an operational theater. Ships must still be sailed, airplanes flown, supplies delivered, and patrols conducted, all in the face of an enemy that “gets a vote” in these matters. The last time I recall there being a Christmas truce, it was in a small section of the Western Front in 1914 during World War I, nearly 100 years ago. So regardless of the season, military operations are continuous and the stress of those situations colors everything, even the holidays.

During my 37-year career in the U. S. Army, I spent a fair amount of time away from home on training or operational requirements. Military operations overseas including Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom kept me away from home twice during the Holiday Season (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s). These times can be stressful and lonely, but the military does its best to address this season of food, fellowship, and family.

Fellowship is an extremely important part of the holiday season. If you’re home, you can enjoy this aspect of the holidays with family and friends. These aspects of fellowship are more limited in an operational theater, but the feeling of fellowship can be just as strong among those with whom you serve. This often takes a humorous, though meaningful tone. For example, I remember Santa visiting us during Desert Shield and Desert Storm (represented by one of our senior NCOs) as he greeted everyone in our unit and distributed items sent from our families back home. In that vein I was a beneficiary of Santa’s (and my family’s) generosity and kindness.

Later, when I was the Theater Engineer in Iraq, I had the privilege of helping Santa. While my staff slept, I distributed gifts to each desk. The look on their faces when they reported for duty and found something special from Santa was priceless and truly enhanced the fellowship among us all.

Families are extremely dear during the Holidays. However, service in our country’s Armed Forces often means separation during these important times of the year. During Desert Shield/Desert Storm soldiers maintained contact with their families via the mail (yes, snail mail!), the occasional morale call via MARS, and later via commercial phone (although the lines outside the limited number of phone booths made this a limited, though welcome option). Hardly ten years later (during the early days of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom) most service personnel had access to email and nowadays most Skype quite frequently with their families and loved ones. These modern communications means can truly reduce the sense of separation from families, but they can’t fully substitute for the inability to be physically present during those special times.

Finally, the holidays are about remembering our many blessings. Whether one is able to be with their families or together with their “military families” downrange, the holidays serve as a warm and comforting reminder of the many blessings bestowed upon us regardless of where we happen to be at the time. One is reminded during this season how important the little things can be, especially during stressful times. I hope that all those who are serving now will do so in safety and with the assurance that the food, fellowship, and family (near and far) during this Holiday Season will remain a blessing to them now and for many years to come.

Maj. Gen. (Ret) Merdith W. B. Temple, PE, PMP Senior Advisor

Gen. Temple was formerly Acting Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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