Like father, like son: Spending the holidays in a combat zone

This Christmas, I (and I hope many Americans) will be thinking of our troops
in Iraq and Afghanistan who are facing not only the ongoing war 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 flown over in C-140 cargo planes during a
30-day period.

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.
It was the largest land battle of WWII with over one million men total on
both sides.

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, as 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 or call

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

Oh 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.

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