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For troops, cards and care packages bring a touch of home to Christmas

By LAURA RAUCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 24, 2011

FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan — Even in the dust and grime of war in Afghanistan, the yuletide spirit takes hold.

Most holidays here come and go without fanfare; missed birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal milestones are more difficult. But for many soldiers, being away from their families at Christmastime is a little tougher still.

For some of the younger soldiers, it’s the first Christmas away from family; some of the older ones haven’t made it home in years.

“This holiday season will be is extremely difficult for our soldiers due to separation from family and engaging in a war that will not stop for Christmas,” Battalion Chaplain Capt. Omari Thompson of Miami said.

“We are still fighting a tough fight, we are still taking casualties,” he said.

His unit, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, serves on the front line of combat operations in Regional Command-South and has suffered the brigade’s most casualties for the deployment.

“I am a soldier who is struggling during this holiday season as well,” said Thompson, who will be missing his wife and four children. He has an especially strong bond with the soldiers he serves, having helped so many of them cope with the loss of their fellow infantrymen.

“I don’t try to put on an over-the-top face of excitement, masking how I truly feel. I share my struggles with them and my desire to be back home. Before long, we are reminiscing about the good times with our loved ones, telling stories and laughing.

“Then I take the joy in that moment and use it as motivation to inspire and invigorate them to continue their grueling mission. That is the key to completing this deployment and getting home to those good times,” he said.

On Christmas Day, Thompson will visit each of the battalion’s combat outposts with a message of peace, love and salvation.

“I hope to bring them a sense of hope and relief with this sermon that, though they are not home with their families, though they will not open gifts under a tree, there is still cause for celebration and jubilee at the true meaning of Christmas,” he said.

Col. Mark Stevens, of Topeka, Kan., team leader for the Human Terrain Team attached to the 3rd Brigade, has served in the Army for 28 years, but is still moved by the scores of Christmas cards and care packages that pour in during the holiday season.

He remembers making a card and putting together a care package for his dad, who fought in Vietnam. He also remembers knowing that it would be the only holiday care package his father would get. For soldiers serving now, things are different.

“We get inundated with Christmas packages from all over the United States, he said. “We get Christmas cards, too, from kids we don’t know; we get packages from people we don’t know. It makes you feel great. It makes you feel loved.”

Sgt. Melissa Stewart, of Phoenix, who is with the brigade Headquarters and Headquarters Company, was thrilled to receive a plastic jar of caramel popcorn in a box addressed To Any Soldier.

“You aren’t in America. You can’t just go to Safeway and find this,” she beamed as she downed a handful.

Sgt. Jettadiah Bush, of Zion Chapel, Ala., also appreciates the packages.

“It means people are out there still rooting for us,” he said.

Bush, who is with Company C, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, will miss his 7-month-old daughter’s first Christmas. He was in Afghanistan when she was born, but got to see her when he was home on leave.

Bush and his wife have decided to celebrate when he returns in February. His wife is leaving the Christmas decorations up until then, including the tree and outdoor lights.

“I love Christmas,” he said, smiling. “I promise you, there will be Christmas lights when I get home.”

Along with the care packages, Christmas cards are always appreciated by the soldiers, especially those from children.

They enjoy reading the misspelled words and the good wishes.

Stevens is especially fond of one — its edges folded just a little off, its decorations glued as only a kindergartner can. It reads, “From Brooklyn, Thank You for Protekten Us, Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho.”

Simple ones penned by an adult can mean a lot, too: “Thank you for your service and sacrifice. May God bless you and keep you safe. Merry Christmas.”

At Forward Operating Base Bostick, just a few miles from the Pakistani border in northern Kunar province, soldiers with 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, were enjoying cards and holiday wishes from home, too.

Pfc. Sean Harvey, of Pittman, N.J., recently received a stack of holiday greetings from third-graders back home in New Jersey, thanking him for his service. The cards were meant for Thanksgiving, but had only just arrived. It hardly mattered.

“That’s a really good feeling. When you’re a long way from home and it’s the holidays, it means a lot to hear from people and to know they’re thinking about us,” Harvey said.

Like Bush and many others, Pfc. Sabrina Little, of Hampton, Va., will hold off celebrating Christmas until she returns home and can be with her fiancé, who is also a soldier. She and a few of her friends at FOB Bostick will exchange gifts, but she’ll be thinking of home and, she says, missing her grandmother’s potato salad.

“I’m going to miss my family a lot. My mom isn’t used to having her kids so far away from home. But you just try to make the best of it while you’re here, and with the friends I have (on base), we’ll celebrate and try to have fun.”

Capt. Mike Cabanas, of Chatham, N.J., who is also with 2-27, will miss both his fiancée and his dad’s special Christmas chicken Parmesan dinner.

“Out here, you’re not really aware of what time of year it is; it doesn’t feel like the holidays,” he said. “It’s sort of like ‘Groundhog Day,’ because you’re doing what you always do.

“So hearing from people back home makes a difference. Their support means a lot,” he said.

While soldiers have Skype, email and other electronic communications their World War II or Vietnam predecessors could not have imagined, those tools sometimes make things even tougher.

“Facebook is the devil,” joked Spc. Crystal Hernandez, of Dilley, Texas, as laughter erupted among her peers with D Troop, 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division at FOB Pasab. Many agreed that communicating electronically has its ups and downs. While it’s nice to see family and friends enjoying holiday parties and traditions, it can sometimes make them feel more isolated and lonely.

When that happens, they look to their fellow soldiers for solace.

“There’s an unspoken connection that you have with your brothers,” Cabanas said. “Everybody knows they’d rather be home with their families; you don’t even have to talk about it. But we’re here with each other, and as long as we’re all together, that makes it easier.”

Don’t ever feel sorry for a deployed soldier, though. Most will tell you they hate that more than anything else.

“We love to be told ‘thank you,’ but don’t pity us,” Stevens said. “We volunteered. This is what we do. This is why we joined.

“Not every American is willing to come over here and lay down their lives, but if you talk to any soldier out here, they’ll say that’s why they joined. When there is a time of war, we’ll be there.”

Stars and Stripes’ Martin Kuz contributed to this report.

rauchl@stripes.osd.mil

Soldiers walk into the main dining facility Friday at Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar province Afghanistan.
LAURA RAUCH/STARS AND STRIPES

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