By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News
Posted 12/20/16 (Tue)
This Christmas marks 10 years since the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of the North Dakota National Guard was on active duty and away from home.
I was the first sergeant of the unit and the 20 of us were split up in three locations so we couldn’t celebrate Christmas together.
Some of us were at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, some of us were at Camp As Sayliyah near Doha, Qatar and two of us were working at a place called Crawford Communications in Atlanta accepting all the military photos that came into the United States from overseas.
Because the two in Atlanta were both young sergeants, I decided to drive up there and spend a couple of days with them just to let them know that they were being thought about during Christmas.
As you might imagine, two days passed by rather quickly but we enjoyed some fine dining after work and exchanged gifts before I departed for Tampa.
Back at Central Command, things were a little more lively just because of the sheer volume of people. But that is where things got interesting.
It was about a week before Christmas, a Friday afternoon before the weekend and someone in the leadership decided to have a massive Christmas party that included all members of the coalition of nations.
That meant each nation’s Tampa contingent set up pavilions and prepared ethnic Christmas food and drink.
Plum pudding from England, borshcht from Ukraine, Lambington from Australia, wienerschnitzel from Germany, perogies from Canada, empenada from Costa Rica, cabbage rolls from Romania, curried lentil salad from Pakistan and the list goes on.
Some of the guys from adjacent MacDill Air Force Base grilled hamburgers and brought apple pies. It was far better than any food we ever ate in any military dining facility and it was all free.
All of the spouses were invited and we were all encouraged to stop at each pavilion and taste the flavor of Christmas from each of the 79 nations in the coalition at that time.
At first thought I wasn’t going to go because it was Friday afternoon and all I wanted to do on Friday night was relax in my apartment. But the sergeant major convinced me to go and am I ever glad I did. It was wonderful.
The food, the festive nature of the event, the fact that Central Command leadership allowed it and hanging out in uniform with foreign soldiers on Uncle Sam’s watch was kind of an interesting scenario.
It was also one of two times in my military career of 35 years, that we were able to drink a toast while on duty.
With that in mind, I steered clear of the British pavilion and only had a shot of vodka with my friend Capt. Yurii Kaliev of Ukraine.
When I got home from work that same day, there was a large package that I wasn’t expecting. When I opened it, there were all kinds of items from cookies to toothpaste, crossword puzzles and magazines and a note that said more is coming.
After the second package arrived and I took an inventory of it all, there were 20 of everything that came from a group called Soldiers Angels.
It was engineered by Shelle Michaels (now Aberle) in Bismarck who took it upon herself to make sure all the North Dakota Soldiers deployed that Christmas, weren’t forgotten. And there were a lot of us deployed in December 2006.
So, in a sense, I got to play Santa Claus in camouflage by passing out Christmas presents to everyone in the detachment. I even took a couple of the packages overseas to present to the two Soldiers who were permanently stationed in Doha when I hopped across the pond in January 2007.
It was all very memorable and it’s hard to describe how something so wonderful could happen during such a stressful time.
Despite that, it can never replace being away from home on Christmas. Fellow Soldiers and comrades from other nations can never replace family members when it comes to Christmas. We can celebrate and enjoy it, but it isn’t the same.
I have to say that although I loved being in Tampa at Christmas time, I would have rather been in North Dakota with family.
But my clever wife Ilene kind of fixed that too. Two days after Christmas, she and daughter Heidi came to visit.
I took a week off work and we spent the time touring the Tampa Bay area, extending the holiday.