At Christmas, think of the troops

A crew member dressed as Santa on deck in the Coral Sea, 1971. (Photo, Shutterstock)

(Ed’s Note: This commentary originally appeared in Capitol Weekly on Dec. 22, 2005. We liked it then and we still do. )

This Christmas, I (and I hope many Americans) will be thinking of our troops around the world who are facing not only danger but also the emotional strain of being away from their families at such a time.

I was in Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam with the 101st Airborne for Christmas of 1967. We were young paratroopers, most of whom were single (unlike today’s military, where many are married and have kids) and my unit, along with 10,000 other paratroopers, had arrived in Vietnam in C-141 cargo planes during a 30-day period.

The irony of my Christmas in Vietnam was that it was hot, but 23 years before on Christmas in 1944, my dad was in General Patton’s army in the Battle of the Bulge

Most who served in Vietnam flew over and then got assigned to a unit which was rotating people in and out, but we were like a family that had gone on a trip together.

I had scrounged up a scruffy tree, some paper decorations were added and a couple of guys sang Christmas songs. In one way we were lucky–at least my unit was on base that day to “enjoy” Christmas, while many other guys were out in the field.

I don’t recall if we got attacked that particular day, “incoming” being such a common occurrence, meaning rockets and mortars were coming in. There are no day-offs in war zones – it is constant work. You may be on guard or on patrol all day followed by a night on the perimeter with one other guy in a bunker taking one or two hour shifts. Your body is demanding sleep, but your brain is telling you no sleeping on your watch, otherwise it could be your final sleep.

The irony of my Christmas in Vietnam was that it was hot, but 23 years before on Christmas in 1944, my dad was in General Patton’s army in the Battle of the Bulge in the coldest, snowiest weather in memory in Europe. For Americans, it was the largest land battle of World War II.

The other irony was that my outfit – the 101st Airborne – was also there in 1944 and ended up being surrounded by the Germans in the city of Bastogne. When the paratroopers were told to surrender, the American general replied, “Nuts!”– which confused the Germans.

The allies won the Battle of the Bulge and five months later ultimately defeated the Nazis and saved the world. But the deal created the Cold War between the Soviet Union and China versus the United States, which led to the Korean War, lasting three years and the Vietnam War which went on for over a decade.

As we celebrated Christmas in Vietnam we had no idea what was ahead of us and what was happening back home with our families –remember, there were no phone calls home and email had not been invented yet. Just five weeks later, on January 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive opened up and in one month 2,000 Americans were dead and more than 10,000 wounded.

After that, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; Robert Kennedy won the California primary and then was immediately assassinated; there was turmoil at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and finally Richard Nixon was elected as President.

Some of the guys gathered around that makeshift tree in 1967 were celebrating their last Christmas, because they would be dead in a few months.

Others, like myself, would be wounded.

During this holiday season, let’s think of our troops, and also contribute to the USO’s “Operation Phone Home” fund so some of the troops can call home over the holidays. To make a donation, go to www.uso.org or call 1-800-876 7469.

In some tragic cases it will be the last contact these brave service members will have with their families, but it will be remembered by their family members for a lifetime.

Yes, we will see this weekend video of troops in the war zones “celebrating” with turkey dinners and a Christmas tree, but they will be the exception – most of the troops will not have such a day.

Ed’s Note: Bob Mulholland, the former political director of the California Democratic Party, is a political strategist and consultant.

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