Each year when the holidays come around, those in the military experience a wide range of emotions.
Being the trained defender who serves his or her country, the demands of keeping focused on the mission leaves little room for heartfelt memories of home, days of youth, and the family life that took place before you raised your hand and swore an oath to leave all that behind.
Back during the Vietnam War, when the draft was still in effect, many of the young soldiers before deployment were busy in training and getting up to speed about what the world of combat was going to be like — especially in Vietnam. After deployment, soldiers were required to get up to speed pretty fast and transition from homelife to life in the jungles and foxholes without much time to consider separation.
Since it is December and the holidays are coming up, I wanted to share a few recollections from soldiers who found themselves in Vietnam suffering from being separated from family and the warmth of the Christmas holidays as they dealt with the heat and humidity of a country with no resemblance to the North Pole.
Dan was one of many suffering from the Vietnam experience and like many, the drama in one’s life just added to the despair of the holidays, as Dan puts it:
“In December of 1971, I was stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam. I was drafted eight months earlier and had to leave my family and my girlfriend. We dated for over a year prior to my leaving, and we talked about marriage sometime in the future. She wrote me every day and I looked forward to her letters. Those letters are what I lived for each day. Well, about two weeks before Christmas her letters stopped coming. I was sure it was a mail issue, and her letters were just being delayed.
I never got another letter from her, and I was devastated! After a few weeks I learned, through her mother, that she found another boyfriend in college. I thought my life was over. I lost my appetite, I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I could not imagine my life without her, and no one could cheer me up.”
Another soldier named Tim shared a similar feeling about the run up to the holidays with his recollection:
“I had been in Vietnam for about a month in 1970, and Christmas time was approaching. But it was hard for me to get into the holiday mood with the 100-degree heat and humidity, and the constant fear of not knowing if I might wake up dead some morning.
“There was a Christmas tree on the Intensive Care Unit. It was sent to us by a caring VFW club back home. The head nurse had purchased gifts for all the staff. I got a pen and pencil set, along with a “ditty bag” full of little things like shaving gear and note paper and candy from the Red Cross.”
Then we have the story of Doc Bates, another one of those soldiers that understood the Christmas spirit and was doing his best to keep it alive for all those he served as a medic. One of those who served with him explained Doc’s actions like this:
“Doc Bates came to Claymore Corner, a small primitive base 35 miles northwest of Saigon at the beginning of the 1967 Christmas season, at a time when the men there were especially down and gloomy. A few days after Bates’ arrival, the new company commander, Howard “Dutch” McAllister, himself fighting depression as Christmas grew near, noticed a small, scruffy, artificial Christmas tree that sat on some flat rocks just outside the mess tent. He also noticed something peculiar going on around the tree every evening.
“While soldiers listlessly moved through the mess tent receiving their evening meal on steel trays, McAllister spied one soldier carefully brushing dust from the sad-looking Christmas tree each evening. Like everything else on the base, a fine patina of red dust from the day’s truck convoys had collected on the tree, making the soldier’s efforts basically useless. When McAllister finally drew near, he realized the man faithfully tending to the shabby tree was the company’s senior medical aid man, Doc Bates. He was short and compact with a thatch of reddish-brown hair and a quick smile. McAllister approached the quiet medic, asking him, ‘What’s this, Doc? First aid for the tree?’ Bates laughed and replied, ‘Just trying to make myself count, Captain.’”
These three soldiers represent hundreds more who were suffering the same depression because the holidays and Christmas were anything but joyful and meaningful, being so far from home and family in a war zone .
Many of us never heard of a tradition in Vietnam that started to take place on Christmas Eve as homesick soldiers started a little tradition that for many brought a little peace of mind and hope for a better tomorrow in the land of jungles and rice patties. While doing some research I discovered that the tradition was carried out at many locations all over the country.
As Dan explains it here, I think we can understand how powerful a moment this was and to all the other soldiers during that time on a Christmas Eve so far from home.
“As Christmas approached, it just got worse. Then I found out that, instead of going to the big party they had for the 200 soldiers at our camp, I had to be on guard duty all night on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, I walked to the armory feeling very lonely and depressed. I picked up my weapons, an M-16 rifle, some illumination flares, a heavy M-60 machine gun, plus several belts of ammo and dragged the equipment out to the camp perimeter for 12 hours of guard duty in a muddy trench four feet deep. I did have a radio that I could use to talk to the other soldiers nearby during the night in case we came under attack.
“I remember complaining to a buddy nearby on the radio about having to work on Christmas Eve, and we began to make small talk. My buddy then began to tell me what was going to happen later that night. He explained that it was a tradition in Vietnam, that at the stroke of midnight, every soldier on guard duty would take out an illumination flare and shoot it skyward.
“The flares were extremely bright and turned night into day while floating down on a small parachute. They burned for about one minute and lit up everything in your immediate vicinity. They were only supposed to be used if you saw or heard something unusual and had to see if the enemy was coming through the perimeter wire.
“As midnight approached, I was now thinking about what this ‘event’ would actually look like. I wondered if I would be able to see the flares fired from the many neighboring camps surrounding the city of Da Nang.
“When the clock struck midnight, I grabbed my flare and got ready. When flares started to be launched, I shot mine skyward with a loud roar. It streaked upwards to about 1,000 feet. I heard a ‘pop’ and the magnesium flare ignited, creating a dazzling white light so bright, it hurt your eyes to look directly at it.
“Suddenly, as far as I could see, thousands of these flares were seen shooting into the night sky all around the city of Da Nang. In seconds, the whole area was lit with an incredibly bright light. It was literally daylight at midnight. I have never again seen anything like this. I was stunned! I climbed out of my trench and looked all around me, 360 degrees. Immediately, the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14 came to me.
“Then things went silent … maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I heard people singing Christmas carols in the distance.
“I suddenly had a very different perspective. In that muddy trench at 19 years old, I had a wonderful peace come over me that Christmas Eve.
To this day, I will never forget that night, 12,000 miles from home, where I got a little taste of the glorious night the shepherds witnessed.”
As I read more stories like this, I was thinking how the greatness of America was in the way we grew up back in those days, and how those old Christmas traditions from all across America and the joys of Christmas Eve services and Christmas Day with loved ones and friends, was the strength we drew on to help us overcome the fear of the unknown in such trying conditions.
Imagine the scene as soldiers paused, looked to those skies and had a brief moment with a glowing star that gave them peace and a chance to share a little bit of home with hundreds more who needed a star of their own.
God bless you all and have a happy and safe holiday season and I look forward to entertaining you with more stories in the coming year. So, for now, Bob out — until next year …
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’