Since I personally have direct experience in being away from home on military assignment during the holidays, I felt compelled to share with you an excerpt from an historical exchange, which took place at that time, by way of excerpts from two important letters, written while I served overseas in the winter of 1975, between me and my mother.
November 29, 1975
My Dear son,
First of all, we received your recent letter, written while on duty today. I was very happy to receive it, and all read your letter with feelings of concern, yet also happiness. It is hard to explain. We all love you, and hope that the time you must give to the Army goes as quickly as you would wish it to go…in spite of everything.
(What follows is a section of that letter, which contained my description of the experience of being on duty at the border station.)
“Dear Mom and Dad and everyone,
By the time you receive this letter, I will have returned to Augsburg, with the mission completed. I won’t be able to send it until I get back. We are on a border site mission, which means that right now, your son is sitting about 5 km from the East German border. We are on top of a small mountain from which you can see into East Germany. Right at this particular moment it’s snowing pretty well, after having snowed yesterday about a half a foot before it stopped last night. It’s really quite cold; however, I am relatively comfortable considering the circumstances. We work in shifts so no one is out in the cold for too long. When we finish work for the day, they drive us into a nearby town to take showers and have a few beers. It’s really not too bad actually.
The one thing I really wanted to tell you all about was the feeling I had last night as I watched the snow fall over the other side of a large barbed-wire fence that separates the East Germans from the free world. It’s not a spectacular scene really, but the implications, at least for me, are very graphic. The fence itself and the area within about 50 meters are lit up like it was daytime. Every hundred meters or so, you see a guard tower with the East German border guards sitting up there just watching you watch them. There was hardly a sound to be heard.
The snowfall seemed to make everything peaceful, and I began to think a little bit about just what it must be like to live on the other side of that fence. How does that East German soldier feel about his lot, and how he must wonder about what I’m thinking? Needless to say, it was a very sobering moment. I thought of you all, just at that moment and I have to admit I cried just a little bit and wished I was home. I was tired and cold and I guess a little lonesome for my family—a feeling that I learned to appreciate a while ago, emphasized somewhat by my surroundings; one that I could not have known without having had the experience.”
(Back to Mom’s response)
“By the way, I mailed a Christmas package. A couple of things are to be opened immediately, but others should remain until Christmas. It’s hard to be away for the holidays, son, but remember, we are thinking of you, and when you are home again, we shall have the biggest homecoming party you have ever seen!
The whole house is starting to become active with secret shopping and the Christmas Spirit! Your sister tells me, “It’s building!” We have our nativity scene up on the mantel piece. We are hearing more and more Christmas songs on the radio. Stores are decorated and it’s cold out—down to the low 20’s tonight. No snow yet!
We expect your sister and her family on Christmas Day; both your brothers will be here Christmas Eve also. We have a limited Pollyanna because both married children, plus our military son, will not be here on Christmas Eve. Your older brother is going to cut down the tree tomorrow. The girls and your younger brother are going with him. We expect to trim the tree Sunday.
Everyone is getting excited as usual. They all have come to me at different times and said how much they miss you, and how much they wish you were here for Christmas. My dear son, your mother thinks of you often and also of our talks in the kitchen when you were home. They are a great comfort to me. I love you and miss you.
God Bless You, with Love…Mother”
As you can see from this exchange, the circumstances for me and for the whole family were affected by my assignment and deployment, and while the situation wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as those brave soldiers serving in combat zones, the stresses and responsibilities are still daunting in their own way. I know my parents and siblings were worried about me and missed me. It was difficult to be away from home for so long and through times when we were traditionally together, but it was vitally important work that we were doing in defense of our country, and at the end of it all, once that duty was finished, the lessons learned stayed with us.
In the photo above, at Christmas time one year later, my parents and four of my siblings came over to visit me in West Germany, and we were joined by the German family who hosted me in Augsburg, more than making up for the lonely Christmas the year before. My German friends understood well the important American values held by our family.
Being far away from home, during the holidays especially, our appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy in America, and the love we have for our families and for our way of life as Americans, become something more than just words on a patriotic poster, or in some speech by a politician. The deeper meaning of our values and our heritage as citizens of the United States comes into sharper focus, in a way that just reading about such things could never impart.
The changes you go through, the challenges you face, and the altering of your view of the world, acquired as a result of participation in the defense of your country overseas, regardless of the motivations you may have had when you entered the service, will very likely stay with you for the rest of your life, just as they have for those of us who have served in the past.
We all recognize that the sacrifices made by our military men and women in uniform are necessary in order to fulfill their responsibilities, and we must support them unconditionally in their endeavors. I recommend to all military folks out there to be sure and write or communicate in some way with your loved ones. Take it from me, it’s the best way to get you through whatever comes.
May God bless them all and keep them safe always, and continue to bless the United States of America!