"I'll be home for Christmas…" but many of our troops won't.

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE December 14, 2016

"I'll be home for Christmas" is more than a classic Bing Crosby song - it's the sentiment most of us have as December 25 approaches each year. No matter what we do or where we are, there is something inside us that says that we need to be home for Christmas."     - Mike Huckabee - A Simple Christmas 

The song seems to have been written from the perspective of a soldier deployed overseas during World War II (WWII), and immediately resonated with citizens and military alike. By 1943 the United States was fully engaged in a global war that involved two theatres, Europe and the Pacific. Not surprisingly, like Christmas itself, the song touched people in a very personal way. It became one of the most requested songs for USO shows, and even earned a request from space - astronauts Borman and Lovell returning to earth in a Gemini capsule, requested NASA play it for them. 

Governor Huckabee is right. And I don't know about you, but I can't help but get a tad emotional whenever I hear "I'll be home for Christmas." Doesn't matter which rendition, and there are many that have been recorded since Bing Crosby first sang that now venerable song in 1943. 

The lyrics* so perfectly capture the longing, the heartfelt yearning the singer - which could, and probably has been at one time or another many of us - truly feels. No time of year for Christians is more identified with a season of family, home, hearth, shared experiences and traditions than Christmas. It, above all others is a time for giving, for laughter, for rest and restoration in the company of loved ones. And yet for many of our fellow citizens, especially our service men and women - the tens of thousands deployed in foreign lands, often inhospitable and conflict ridden places - they will not be home for Christmas. And tragically, some may die long before they are home for Christmas. 

Perhaps you, too, are moved by that song? 

For me, "I'll be home for Christmas" brings back a kaleidoscope of memories - living abroad during the Holidays and missing home, working in different venues across the US and Middle East and hoping I would get back to family in time to celebrate with loved ones. But of all the reasons that song speaks to me, it is memories of my dad talking about Christmas during wartime. Dad served in the tank corps, during WWII, in Europe. He said whenever he and his fellow members of the tank crews heard "I'll be home for Christmas" it made them feel just a little bit closer to their families, on the notion their kin back home were listening to, and thinking about them, praying for their safe return. He said you just got the feeling back then that everyone, regardless which side of the Atlantic was sharing the same thoughts of happy reunions around the Christmas tree and dining room table, as it was before the war. 

Like most people, it is hard to fathom serving in a very cold Europe during World War II, without the creature comforts we take for granted, knowing supplies were limited, even the basic necessities of warm clothes or warm food. The enemy was still capable of fighting aggressively. Sometimes during the Christmas Holidays dad would tell me what it was like celebrating with his comrades in arms knowing the Germans were closing in and heavy casualties were being suffered in his battalion. As an aside, he always recognized he and his German counterparts were all adolescents, and they were missing home, and dying, too.  Dad would talk about how sometimes they would create makeshift trees and decorations for morale. Or how local villagers, grateful the Americans had liberated their town, would share what little they had. But any glimmer of normalcy was always interrupted by the reality of war. Thunderous artillery and gunfire was a common backdrop to the few times they allowed themselves a Christmas carol. Explosions were more frequent than the peel of church bells ringing. At any time of year this had to be a challenge of bravery and to the soul, but at Christmas, unimaginable. 

But Christmas is a time for miracles, and a time for thinking outside of the box to provide for those who have the greatest need. 

Speaking of which.... 

Most FSM readers likely are familiar with "The Christmas Truce," that occurred along the trenches during WWI. But there are other examples revealing the power of Christmas to channel the common humanity in all of us, even when we are on opposite sides of a powerful divide - in war or politics. Consider two very powerful Christmas stories, both occurring during WWII 

 The first one, according to a variety of sources, is sometimes referred to as "The Silent Night Truce" - (a movie was done not many years ago about this event with a similar title). As the story goes, it was Christmas Even 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The German surprise attack inflicted heavy casualties. With snowy conditions, and heavy fighting, a few US soldiers, lost in the Ardennes, eventually came upon a small cabin in the woods owned by the Vinckens. At home at the time was Elisabeth, and her son Fritz.  The soldiers knocked at the door, and when Elisabeth saw two at the door and a third lying in the snow; and noted they were barely older than boys, was moved to want to help. Although armed, they did not force themselves in. Recognizing they were cold, and one was wounded, she invited them inside. Not long after, another knock on the door came, and revealed four German soldiers, also lost in the woods. She risked her life for committing treason to protect the Americans, but did so - I'd call that a Christmas miracle. Seeing the Germans were also cold and hungry, she invited the Germans in. Consider the Germans outnumbered the Americans, and could easily have taken over the cabin, courageously she insisted they leave their weapons. Amazingly they complied, as did the Americans. Elisabeth according to the story is noted as saying "Es ist Heiligabend und hier wird nicht geschossen." "It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here." All the soldiers that night shared a common humanity, and if the story is to be believed, the next day the Germans told the Americans how to get back to their lines. 

The second story involves a chaplain aboard the USS North Carolina, and a department store. The chaplain raised money in the autumn of 1943, sent it to Macy's with a request to use the money to buy presents for the kids and loved ones of his charges aboard the Battleship. Well Macy's did one better - bringing some of the families together, creating a home movie of sorts, showing the kids playing with the presents the sailors and marines aboard ship had "purchased" with their donations. At Christmas the chaplain showed the film on the ship.  Unexpected mercies, minor miracles, great outcomes. 

We, too, are capable of generating unexpected mercies. 

Christmas magic exists in the hearts of most of us.  Now let's fast forward to 2016. What kind of magic, what kind of mini miracle can we perform for our servicemen and women here and abroad, deployed or discharged, surviving in a war zone, an inhospitable region, in a military hospital, recovering in therapy, or struggling on the streets, homeless, alone. 

Having just finished reading a charming Christmas story titled Home and Away by Dean Hughes, nearly everyone is focused one way or another on the war, on neighbors with a loved one in harm's way, on society - it was about shared mission, shared sacrifice. In it, church congregation, neighbors, and a very kind woman create a set of mini miracles for a family greatly in need of kindness. 

The contrast between an America at war in 1943 and an America at war in 2016 is dramatic. The difference in society in terms of how our fellow citizens think about and care for our military, especially those in a war zone is staggering and disappointing. Consider in the 1940s nearly everyone had some ‘skin in the game' - either having a relative, friend, or neighbor deployed, or was part of the war effort - Rosie the Riveter, or USO volunteer, or part of a community drive to provide for the needs of troops afar, or neighbors who lost someone. Fast forward to the 21st century - we still have troops in mortal danger. There is a war going on. There are nearly 10,000 service men and women in Afghanistan alone, and at one time over a hundred thousand troops across the globe. But herein lies the disconnect (well one of several) - most Americans do not have skin in the game anymore. Without a draft, our nation is protected by an all volunteer military. And a disproportionate amount of people in the US are protected by a woefully tiny number of folks who choose to wear the uniform, compared to those who rest safely thanks to the efforts of uniformed personnel who often don't sleep securely, on behalf of us! Moreover, the sense of shared sacrifice is elusive to many.  And yet we are inherently a nation of people who do share. We are a decent and good people with the capacity to have more skin in the game in terms of service. 

Each of us has the "three T's of philanthropy" albeit in different measures....Time, Talent, Treasure.

At this time of year when "want is keenly felt" to go Dickens on you....we still have time to put some "Merry" in the Christmas of our servicemen and women, their dependents, and our veterans of various wars - some languishing in hospital, others homeless or lonely. 

Visiting a military shut in is a great use of "Time." 

Catalyzing endeavors to help veterans, active duty here or abroad, or family members separated by loved ones is a great use of "Talent." Not long ago several of us put together a charitable endeavor entitled "Operation Gingerbread House" for a group of servicemen and women in Afghanistan. Initiated by a friend who was not a person of means - her husband was deployed in Afghanistan - a bunch of us got donations of Christmas comfort items, and of course (how the endeavor got named) gingerbread house kits (they had a contest over there who made the best, coolest ones), food and personal items, phone cards, goofy decorations, anything to let our gift recipients know they were cared about. All told, dozens of boxes and hundreds of pounds of "Merry" from a group of us everyday citizens were shipped to the Gulf, and got there on time for Christmas. If we can pull it off using the resources at our small workplaces and circle of friends, anyone can!  Hint, hint....you can, too! Subtle aren't I?! 

Then there's "Treasure." Several organizations exist to help make life a little brighter for our servicemen and women deployed. USO is one such enterprise that has been providing a touch of home for the military for decades. There are others. Charity Navigator, local military liaison offices, and military support groups can also guide you where best to share your hard earned dollars to help others - folks who are willing to give us, you and me, the ultimate gift....their last full measure of devotion. We get off a lot easier....trying to give them a Happy Holiday Season. 

Conclusion

"I'll be home for Christmas" - a venerable song that has come to symbolize what it means to be away from family during the Holidays. More than that, it conjures so powerfully the image of our servicemen and women trying to make the best of challenging situations, celebrating as best as they can far from home. While we do not have the power to bring them home for this Christmas, we can, through various charities, try to make their Holidays as bright, as full of cheer as possible, imbued with a sense they are not forgotten but are in fact thought of often and cared about.  We can in essence send them a touch of home, until they can be home for Christmas.

"I'll be home for Christmas..."but many of our troops won't. Until they are home, we can remember, and hopefully use our Time, Talent, and Treasure to generously thank at this Christmas those who sacrifice so much for you and me. There is still time to make a difference, even in the life of one soldier, sailor, airman, or marine.

 

*Lyrics to "I'll be home for Christmas"

 I'll be home for Christmas;

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree.


Christmas Eve will find me

Where the love light gleams

I'll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams


I'll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistle toe

And presents on the tree


Christmas eve will find me

Where the love light gleams

I'll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams.

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    

 

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