While we’re still a few days away, both Tom and I wish to say Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you all. We’ve been away from home for just under 4 months now. In that time, we’ve been privileged to have met so many wonderful people who have welcomed us, fed us, supported us, and so on. And, we have had tremendous donation support. To date, we are now around 65,000 raised for Dryhootch. You have done 100% of that. Christmas this year will be spent in Flagstaff, AZ. New Years…somewhere between here and Kingman. Hopefully, we will reach LA 6 weeks from now.
We got this message in our Facebook today:
Hey! I just wanted to thank you guys for everything you have done! I used to be in the Wisconsin national guard and I deployed twice. You have encouraged me to seek counseling for my PTSD after battling for the past 4 years! I had my first session last week and I feel I am finally on a good road! I give the credit to your trek for me finally getting this taken care of! Y’all are incredible and doing a great thing! Stay safe! Thank you again!
That’s an awesome Christmas present right there.
When I was in Iraq on my first deployment, I spent Christmas away from home. At the time, I had been married for 5 months and had been in country for just shy of 2 months. I was 21 years old. When I went to the DFAC on Christmas Eve, we had a nice meal. Santa was there with his elves. You could take a picture with him and have it sent home. I remember walking back to my trailer after dinner, maybe a 10 minute walk, in the cold. Yes, for those who are unaware, Baghdad and Iraq, in general, get cold. While walking back I felt pretty bad. I missed home and felt like I was letting my family down by not being home. I remember thinking that I should be home with my wife on our first Christmas together. My roommate and I watched some movies and called it a night. After all, we had a mission in the morning. I tried to put the season somewhere very far away.
Christmas in Iraq is weird. I can’t really put it another way. You’re somewhere where all the things you see at home reminding you of the season are present. You’re constantly reminded that you’re not present where you wish you were and where many at home just wish, for 5 minutes, you could be. On base, in TOCs, in the PX, everywhere, there are holiday related items. People put up little Christmas trees. My family sent me my “gifts.” I had a DCU stocking hung on my wall (not really hung with care). During the holidays, you surround yourself with people you want to be around and who want to be around you. In Iraq, in your mind, you know if they could, everyone around you would be thousands of miles away from you and where you are. Yourself included. It’s Christmas and we’re here…doing this…and everyone I love back home is there doing that. When you try not to think about it, you see the tinsel loosely hanging on a tree in the DFAC and you’re reminded of what time it is. Somewhere in you, at least in me, you make a decision to stop thinking about it. It weakens your ability to be the best you can be at your job. So, you make a decision that this Christmas doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Same with Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Christmas is a Wednesday. When Wednesday comes, it’s Wednesday not Christmas.
The next day for me, on Christmas, we went and drove around in the rain and mist. We parked our humvees in muddy trash fields on the outskirts of a village outside Baghdad in our AO. We didn’t dismount. We sat. We waited. We wondered if we’d be allowed back in in time for Christmas dinner. We talked in our humvees wondering just what in the hell we were doing at that moment. We joked we earned a new CIB…the Christmas Infantry Badge. All the while, the rain dripped down. I remember watching the rain gather and fall off the rubber gasket surrounding the rim of the gunner’s hatch. The rain combined with the dust and dirt to make mud on the platform in front of the spare ammo. Christmas mud. This was Christmas in Iraq. Our battalion commander came around and went Humvee to Humvee. He wanted to give us Christmas cookies his wife had sent. We nibbled on them. The taste of a Christmas cookie just isn’t there, just isn’t the same, when it isn’t Mom’s and you’re eating it in a Humvee parked in a muddy, trash filled field within eye sight of where you’ve seen an IED go off on members of your platoon. I resigned myself to the fact that at that very moment, my family at home was waking up to Christmas day in Wisconsin and I was waiting for some violence to pop off in a muddy field in Iraq. Christmas juxtaposition.
We, to the best of my recollection, sat in that same spot for a long time. Inevitably, your thoughts wander and go to home. Inevitably, the soldier in you tries to hide it. Then, the soldier in you tries to act like being where you are at that moment is just the way it is. You allow the disappointment to enter and remain and you try to shut it out as a casualty of your sense of duty. It’s the price of doing business. For as bad as you wish it wasn’t, you accept it. You don’t accept it because you want to. You accept it because all those around you seem to be accepting it and it is your obligation to them to be in the moment so when shit kicks off, you are there, not 7,000 miles away.
The hard part for me was when I came home and was re-exposed to “traditional” Christmas. At that point, Christmas meant nothing to me. Neither did any other holiday or birthday or anniversary. Why would they? I had found a way that was useful to me to stop feeling these emotions. In Iraq, not feeling or thinking about home or friends or loved ones is useful. It is a way to cope. This coping mechanism allowed me to be present, do my job, and disassociate emotion from experience. Just stop thinking, stop feeling, stop. Do your job, do what’s expected, do. That is the formula for holiday mission prep. That is the formula for any day’s mission prep. That becomes the prep for everyday…even when home.
Now, I’m home. We are home. We are in the United States. We can be around families. We can eat mom’s cookies. Hell, we can watch bowl games while opening gifts while we eat, while we talk, while we do whatever we want. And, if all that isn’t enough, no port a johns with inane, bullshit scribblings to entertain you this year. The one thing I know I’ve wanted more than anything since 2005 has been the ability to enjoy those moments at home, feel an appropriate emotion. I have met a lot of people who wish and want that same thing for themselves. The experience of Christmas or a holiday in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever sucks. It just does. But, those experiences are memories. In 2 days, you have the chance to make a new memory. Make it real. Remember Christmas away and how badly you wanted to be home? You’re there. You made it. Make the most of it. You deserve it. Don’t let the pain of the past dictate the possibilities of the future. Don’t let every holiday be spent in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Somewhere, right now, there are men and women experiencing the holidays away from home. Mothers and fathers are separated from children. Loved ones at home are planning for festivities. Soldiers are planning missions. Separated by thousands of miles, their minds, hearts, and emotions are together. They are thinking that next year they will be together again. And THAT is what they want for Christmas this year…for it to be Christmas next year.
See you on the trail (you bring the mistletoe),
Anthony and Tom