The holiday season is always a poignant time for me. I seem to have mixed emotions about what is clearly one of the holiest and joyous times of the year. I love the embrace of a wonderful family at home, but inevitably, my thoughts drift to those holiday seasons I spent away from the warm hearth of familiar places.
I have foremost in my thoughts and prayers all of those young men and women who serve this nation so far away. As wonderful as the season may be, I know what it is like to be far from home in a foreign land at a time when being close to family is so reassuring.
My first Christmas away from home was in 1979 when I was serving a tour of duty in Iceland. My normal shift was for 12 hours from 6 am to 6 pm in the Operational Control Center for Air Forces Iceland. I was a captain fighter pilot serving a staff tour with very little flying and a great deal of duty time at the center. We were understaffed so each of us had to work long shifts with few days off. When one is away from home, it is far better to be busy than it is to have time on one’s hands.
Hopefully, Christmas in Iceland would be uneventful. I had been invited to have Christmas dinner with our commander at his home on the tiny base in Keflavik. I had a radio to alert me to any need to dash back to the center to take up my watch duties. I was the senior watch officer at the time, so I was never without the anchor of the radio. I had no sooner taken off my jacket than the pager on the radio began to bark. I opened the communications channel and was summoned back to the center by the sergeant on duty.
Moments later, our commander was paged, as well. For the rest of Christmas day, we directed operations against our Russian visitors. Our Soviet “friends” launched a series of Bear bomber sorties from northwestern Russia so we were scrambling AWACS and F-4E Phantom II fighters to observe and escort the bombers as they made their way around Iceland and then back to Russia. As my relief came into the center, it occurred to us that we were not quite done with all the activities of the day. As we were attempting our shift handoff, a navy lieutenant came in with very disturbing news.
Other events were unfolding on Christmas of 1979. The Soviet 40th Army and Soviet paratroopers had begun military operations across the southern border of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan. This event, apparently unnoticed by US intelligence services, was earth shattering in its implications. The US was already focused on a serious war going on in the Middle East (Iran-Iraq) and the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran where dozens of Americans were being held hostage. In another turn of events, the Israeli air force had several encounters with Syrian fighters over the famed Beqaa Valley, leaving smoldering piles of Russian-built Syrian fighters littering the landscape. The cords holding the world together seemed strained and frayed.
With the world on the brink, being so far from home only made things more difficult. It was a lonely time, and no matter how busy one was that loneliness was made more acute by the events of the times. I would miss other Christmases, birthdays, anniversaries and such, but all of those faded into inconsequence when my son, then a captain in the Air Force was to spend his first Christmas away from home on duty in Iraq. He was back in the Middle East as a special operations helicopter pilot flying combat missions every day.
I suppose it was alright for me to be gone away from my family, but having him away was almost more than I could take. I knew how dangerous his duties were and the thought of him having to go in harm’s way during the Christmas holidays seemed unreal. My son, like so many other young men and women, had volunteered to serve his country and being away from home was part of the deal. When he entered the service, he certainly knew what he was getting into. Perhaps these young people saw it in clear terms, but for all of the wives, husbands, children, parents and siblings left behind, things are not always so clear.
Today, my son is home safe with his wife (another Air Force officer) and their new baby. They both have memories of Christmases away from home, so it is most comforting knowing that they are with family during this holiday season. I am grateful and thank God that they are safe. So many others, particularly those thousands of Iowans serving around the world, are making the best of the situation. Those serving will do fine. I ask that you extend your thoughts and prayers to all those who have remained behind, waiting for their loved ones to come home. Maybe next Christmas will be a happier one for all. Always, always remember our men and women in uniform. They serve so that we might enjoy the blessings of this great land.
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