PINEHURST, N.C. — Like many men and women my age, I spent a year of combat duty in Southeast Asia. In my case I was in the Republic of Vietnam. I was in a combat zone for about a year. As a consequence I missed birthdays, school activities for my three children, all of the holidays, our wedding anniversary and the birth of our fourth child.
I know a little bit about how our military men and women feel at this very special time of year. I too missed the Christmas Season and all its joy and all of its meaning.
Around the globe this year there are a few hundred thousand service members who will be separated from their families and loved ones. Most of these are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan facing danger on a daily and hourly basis. There are others in Korea, Japan, Europe, on the African continent and in Latin America as well.
They will still find some time on Christmas day to pause and reflect on the meaning of the season, and in most cases they will have an unusually good meal. Our military leaders know well just how important it is for these men and women to have some touch of home and the holidays -- even though many are facing combat and a terrorist enemy. Where possible, there will be holiday decorations, a special effort to get the mail to the troops, some unit parties and, of course, that "unusually good meal."
It has been a few decades since I spent Christmas in a combat zone. While much is the same, much has also changed.
Many of the military men in combat in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s were not there by choice. They had been drafted into the Army or Marines (the Air Force may have had some draft-motivated enlistees, but no draftees per se. Also, we never drafted women into the armed forces.) They were pulled from their homes, their educational endeavors or their jobs to serve in America's military.
Today's military men and women are all volunteers. They volunteered to serve either in the active force, the reserves or the National Guard. Some may not have thought much about combat or family separations at the time of enlistment, but combat and separations are realities that must be faced. As we face a terrorist movement around the globe and as we try to bring freedom to some 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat and separations will be necessary.
Another major difference from my days of combat is the intense reliance on our National Guard and reserve troops for lengthy and dangerous deployments. Following the Vietnam Conflict our government made a conscious decision to pursue an "All Volunteer Force" and to end the draft. The government also decided on a "Total Force Concept" with much greater reliance on Guard and reserve forces. We see the manifestation of these decisions in our deployed troops today. Currently, there are about 185,000 members of the reserve components on active duty.
Technology has also changed dramatically since my days in a war zone. I would have dearly loved to have had an Internet and digital photography capability. My only voice communication with my wife and children was via some scratchy tape recordings that we would send back and forth to each other. Like the tape recordings, pictures of my children came via snail mail, not digital photos sent over the Internet in real time. I learned of my daughter's birth with a note from the Red Cross. During my year in Vietnam, I could only speak by telephone with my wife on one occasion. Times have changed.
There were no computers available to play video games, do distance learning, or surf the Web during the few idle hours. There was no satellite TV and no NFL games or the Final Four in near real time. There were, as there has been since WW II, USO shows with celebrities, such as Bob Hope, to entertain the troops and to bring a bit of Americana to the combat zone.
The USO is doing the same today with celebrities from the entertainment and sports world traveling to the remote locations and combat zones to be with our troops. (Come to think of it, if you are still looking for an end-of-year charity for donations, pull up
the USO Web site
. You will be doing a great service to our uniformed men and women.)
While much has changed, much remains the same. Many of our service members and their families are separated during special times. Many are involved in dangerous missions in combat zones. Like other times when our nation was at war, during the Christmas and New Year's holidays some families will learn of the wounding or death of a loved one. This remains as the greatest tragedy of war.
Have a blessed holiday season … and offer a prayer for peace in 2005.