For the “Houn’ Dawgs” of the Missouri National Guard’s 203rd Engineer Battalion, to which I am attached, our operational tempo will remain high. Our combat logistics personnel will still be out on Afghanistan’s dangerous roads, delivering critically needed fuel and other supplies to regional forward and combat operating bases.
They will be accompanied by their brothers and sisters in arms who will be manning the route-clearance packages, whose mission is to clear those same dangerous roads of improvised explosive devices and defend against ambushes and small-arms fire. Their schedule will carry them through Christmas and, most likely, New Year’s Day as well.
But the combat engineers of the 203rd won’t be the only unit still in action. So many others – military and civilian alike – still have responsibilities that don’t end because of a date on the calendar.
Guard towers must still be manned, and medical care still provided. Mail delivery – so important, especially during this time of year – must go on.
Troops must be fed, and latrines, showers and common areas will still need to be kept clean and functioning. Laundry facilities must remain operational, and other basic base services such as security and flight operations continue. Also, training – which is so important to overall readiness – will continue unabated.
When troops are fortunate enough to have a few hours of leisure time, they will use it in various ways. Some will celebrate the holidays in small groups, opening presents and packages sent thousands of miles to them by friends and family back home who are trying their best to give us a taste of the holiday season and some semblance of normalcy in this foreign land. Others will simply spend time alone, in solace and reflection, thankful to get a few moments’ peace. Still others will catch up on sleep, on laundry, on writing letters and e-mails, and other personal business. Some will be preparing for their inevitable next mission.
Not all is lost in the foggy pace of war. Soldiers are doing what they can to add their own touch of home to the season.
In the chow halls and tactical operations centers, in the office hallways and post exchanges, in the mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles and on the doors of living quarters there are signs of the season and expressions of faith. Strings of lights – even on blacked-out bases – have popped up, and sparkling trees, tinsel, bulbs and streamers can be seen wherever I go.
In the morale, welfare and recreation centers, personnel wait patiently for a telephone or computer so they can communicate with wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters a world away. Seasonal programming, along with the customary sporting events for this time of year, filters through televisions via the American Forces Network. There is foosball and pingpong, popcorn and card games.
And though we worry about how our loved ones are managing back home – even as they worry about us – we are strengthened in the knowledge that while this may be our lives right now, it will not be our lives forever. Someday – sooner for some, longer for others – we are secure in the knowledge that we will return to that “other world” thousands of miles away to embrace our families and friends and resume our lives in peace.
Still, there are sacrifices. For me, personally, I will miss the tradition of going to Mass prior to getting together with my family on Christmas Eve to share stories, laughs and memories. I will miss the dinner Christmas Day with my extended family. And I will miss, especially, spending time with my small grandchildren, who I am sure do not fully understand why Grandpa isn’t able to be with them this year.
I will miss counting down the moments until the New Year with friends, and I will miss the sense of community I always get this time of year from the people of my hometown of Jefferson City, Mo.
I will miss things that, I am sure, many other serving military personnel also are going to miss. But that’s what is good about traditions — they don’t vanish when there are loved ones who remain behind to carry them on in our absence.
Despite our temporary hardships, for now our families and friends continue to depend on us to keep them safe and to do our part to protect our country against hate, extremism and terror. We know they understand, as we do, that while we would prefer to be back home sharing gifts and smiles, our presence here and throughout the world is necessary as a bulwark against violence and terror, in order to maintain the freedom and security all of them have come to expect.
That we could possibly bring such freedom and security to a people who have never known it makes this journey – and those who support us in it – that much more special this holiday season.