All of those who have served in the military or on behalf of the U.S. government overseas have spent at least one Christmas away from friends and family, in some war zone or other foreign land. It is a rite of passage for every military member to be away on some special day or holiday, at least once. This year, we salute all of those serving overseas on our behalf, standing tall on the wall during this holiday season. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and happy holidays to you all. Stay safe out there.
That being said, here are some of this author’s memories of four Christmases spent with Uncle Sam, and some of his finest young men and women, in hellish training or in foreign lands.
Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training—Coronado, California
There are worse places to spend Christmas than in Coronado—let’s just admit that at the outset. It is a gorgeous, temperate, and in some years, pleasantly warm and sunny place at that time of year. However, spending it there while in BUD/S training is not quite the same when it comes to the level of pleasantness. I know some of you out there envision that we just trained right through the holiday, religious sensitivities be damned, possibly experiencing some horrible holiday surf torture or the like. Actually, though, BUD/S did grant students at least some time off from training during the holidays, at least back in my day.
I was in Second Phase when the Christmas holiday fell back in those days, as I was going through BUD/S. I had already successfully completed pool competency, which is the big hurdle during that phase of training, so I was feeling pretty good about myself. I even dared hope that I would survive the training, and successfully complete it. Talk about a good Christmas present. That is quite a feeling, and it made for a joyous Christmas.
I flew home to Florida for a couple of days—which was all that we got off—and I spent it with my family, letting my body recover, and trying to mentally prepare myself for the final push through the rest of training. I was thankful to be as far through it as I was, and it would have taken quite a bit to bring me down from that high. It was a good Christmas. I ate more food than most would think humanly possible thanks to the absurd amount of calories we burned daily during BUD/S, and when I left to return to training, I was eager to get it done. It was my first Christmas as a U.S. serviceman. I was living the dream.
After I had made it through BUD/S, and was assigned to my first SEAL platoon, we deployed as a winter warfare platoon to the European theater. One of our missions was to serve under NATO’s Kosovo Forces (KFOR) command as an element within the Joint Special Operations Task Force there. Kosovo was pretty calm by that time, with only the occasional outbreak of violence. For a SEAL platoon, it was not a high-risk environment, nor extremely challenging. We often found ourselves somewhat bored, and passed the time with runs through the mountainous base, or shooting and training. When we could, we carried out bread-and-butter reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as well as the occasional other type of tasking, as required by KFOR command.
That Christmas, we ate well at the Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR)-supplied chow hall, and watched movies in the base theater. There was a heavy snowfall in the whole region, and it actually made for a fairly tranquil Christmas and New Year’s holiday. We really could not complain, and enjoyed each other’s company, even being in the slow operational environment. One of our guys even built an igloo to pass the time. There was definitely enough snow and ice to make it a stout one. We also found a local ski lift in one of the Serb Christian enclaves in Kosovo, and did some skiing and snowboarding. We flew down the mountain with our sidearms strapped to our waists, wearing our best camouflage snow gear, over and over again. It was the good life.
Later, I left the Navy and joined up with the CIA. By the time another holiday season rolled around, I was serving with the Agency in Afghanistan. Our base chief was taking one of his rest and recuperation holidays back in the States, so yours truly was the acting chief of base. We always found time in Afghanistan to take some downtime, and especially so on holidays. We read and wrote the minimal amount of cable traffic on Christmas day, and kept operations at a minimum. We also made makeshift Christmas trees out of some local variety of evergreen that grew in the area.
We exchanged gifts and made a turkey dinner. We took care of any high-priority issues that popped up (including sewing up one of our base dogs who had found her way into some concertina wire), but generally, we tried to relax and enjoy the downtime. We drank hooch wine and scotch, and passed the time talking and taking a break from the daily grind. Our local interpreters also got into the fun, helping us decorate trees and exchanging gifts with us.
We called home, of course, to wish a merry Christmas to our loved ones, taking advantage of the satellite phones the CIA provided us for just that reason. We were sad to be away from family on Christmas, but proud to be there taking the fight to our enemy in Afghanistan. No matter where they serve, or what their situation, American servicemen and women always find a way to celebrate the day, even if in the smallest ways. It is one of the things that keeps us sane and connected to life in America.
Finally, one of my final tours with the CIA was in Rome, Italy. Yeah, I know, play me your tiny violin and feel terrible for me having to spend Christmas in such a dreaded place. Well, I hear you. It was glorious. Rome is a city constantly throbbing with life, and bursting at the seams with tourists and locals. During the Christmas holidays, it is even more so, given the Vatican is located within Rome, and the draw for Catholics from around the world to travel there and visit their religion’s seat of faith is strong. Thousands come from all over the world, especially from Ireland, to visit the city and the Vatican.
Thousands also pour in from all over Italy to shop in Rome’s plethora of boutiques and stores, and the result is a beehive of people, all crowding over each other within the city limits, trying to see the sites and buy gifts. The city is decorated beautifully, and shines Christmas joy at you on every street corner. In reality, I was lucky to experience it, and in that case, I did not at all feel like I was making a sacrifice in being so far from my home over the holidays. It was a Christmas to remember, and I am thankful that the USG gave me the opportunity to serve there.
No matter where you are serving this holiday season, in whatever part of the world, know that we back here in America are thankful for you, those serving overseas, and we wish you the warmest of holiday wishes. May your Christmas be merry, and may you have a wonderful celebration of all the season’s holidays.