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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News

 

Christmas in uniform...

Posted 12/23/13 (Mon)

It’s Christmas morning and most of us should be watching the children opening their presents while we’re sipping on a hot cup of Tim Horton’s coffee and nibbling on those holiday goodies.

That’s most of us, not all of us. I would like to remind readers there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel serving their country around the globe on this special morning.

Some of them are in places like Schofield Barracks, Hawaii while others are in the volatile southern provinces of Afghanistan.

It’s a tough time to be away from home. I know, I spent Christmas 2006 away from family and although Ilene and the girls and I talked on the phone at Christmas, I can assure you, it wasn’t the same as being home.

I want to say up front, I didn’t spend Christmas 2006 in a war zone, but I sent Soldiers, who spent Christmas there. My time in the Middle East came after Christmas, in January 2007.

I’m still very proud of three of my young troops who were the first Americans to get satellite uplinks from Kazakhstan to U.S. Central Command. Things have settled down there since, but at the time, December 2006, it was as creepy as Afghanistan or Iraq.

Honestly, the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my career was to send those three Soldiers to such a dangerous and remote place on earth. But it allowed enhanced communications with CENTCOM so leadership could better analyze what was going on in Kazakhstan.

Sgt. Shannon Crane, Spc. Nick Fousek and Spc. Brett Miller were the trio. Crane, the squad leader, had a young son back in Rapid City, Fousek had recently married and they had a baby and Miller was engaged to be married.

So as their first sergeant, you can imagine the weight of making that decision to send them into harm’s way.

But to their credit, nobody complained, they packed their bags and were ready for the trip out. And while there, Crane kept sending messages back to my desk that they were OK and were staying in a makeshift air base there.

They also introduced themselves to an orphanage near Manas Air Base and had a little Christmas program, much to the delight of the forgotten Kazak children.

But they understood their orders and the mission and carried it out with optimism and succeeded on behalf of the U.S. government.

But it bothered them to be away from home and the United States. I know it did. It bothered me.

We also had personnel at an Army base near Doha, Qatar. That wasn’t as bad. It had some amenities like a gym and ice cream.

I was lucky during Christmas 2006, maybe because I was the old guy in the unit. I filled an administrative role back at CENTCOM in Tampa.

So for me, Christmas was a beautiful sunny and quiet morning. I actually relaxed and read the Tampa Tribune, had a wonderful meal in my apartment complex cafe and watched TV.

I also had the distinct privilege of attending a Christmas party at CENTCOM in which troops from the Coalition of Nations prepared Christmas food from their respective countries. That was incredible. Still, it wasn’t the same as being home on Christmas morning.

Several weeks before Christmas, I got back to my apartment after work one day and found a huge package at my doorstep with a Bismarck postmark.

When I opened it, I found a “gold mine” of chocolate, popcorn, soft drinks, Christmas goodies, hygiene items, coffee and more.

I quickly passed these items out to the troops and were they ever excited. Even our 42-year-old major was happy that someone back home was thinking about us. I’ve often said officers are human too and being gone on a holiday like Christmas is as tough for them as it is for the younger enlisted people.

Several days later, I got another package, then another and finally a fourth leading up to Dec. 24.

They all came from a group called Soldiers Angels in Bismarck. I called them as soon as I could and thanked the spokesperson Shelle (Michaels) Aberle, for the gifts and the thoughts that included books, magazines and even subscriptions to our hometown newspapers.

Those packages meant a lot to our unit, and for those who were overseas, I retained a generous portion of the contents and delivered the goods myself when I landed at Camp As Sayliyah.

It’s never too late to send Christmas packages to service members you may know. If not, please call them, let them know you are thinking about them today. And get the little children on the phone, even if they don’t say much. Just a couple of  words like “dah dah” can motivate a soldier to no end.