Mark Millican: Christmas in the field of arms

Mark Millican

Christmas can be a lonely time for those serving in the military. Fortunately as a peacetime Marine, I was able to go home for the holiday since January brought six-month deployments overseas for two years in a row. However, I did stay on base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for a couple of Thanksgivings, and remember how the senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and officers tried to make it as “homey” as possible, even donning aprons to serve chow in the mess hall.

Due to writing about Vietnam veterans killed in action from our region that I was able to get published this year, the thought came to mind to ask some of the veterans who did make it through combat how they spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in the field. Their responses are varied and interesting.

Randall Richards: “I was gone from September '69 till September '70 in Vietnam; my son was 18 months old when I left. Thanksgiving and Christmas were just two more days we were thankful for C-rations. As I remember, we had a two-day cease fire at Christmas. The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) broke the agreement by about eight hours. We took cover and were ordered to stick with the cease-fire agreement. We did. Then we unleashed broadside hell on them.”

Kensel Headrick: “We didn’t observe either day in Vietnam. It was business as usual, the best I can recollect. Of course, we were aware that it was Thanksgiving and Christmas, but activities were the same.”

Ben Arp: “We had Thanksgiving Day off, with turkey and the trimmings. I had just lost the best friend I made in Vietnam. There was too much time to think, and I was glad to get back in the field. Thanksgivings are still bittersweet.”

Clinton Bell: “I spent Christmas Day like any other day, pulling guard duty or hunting Viet Cong. We didn't have time to let our guard down.”

Rob Wentz: “I remember letters and care packages. They take your mind off of what is going on at that moment. Let me explain that you have to stay focused and keep your head in the game at all times. People count on you there. Their lives matter! But getting little things like cookies and dry socks, anything from the real world (was helpful).”

Bruce Bott: “I was in Ramadi, Iraq, where I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in the first go-around. The goal was not to get any Marines hurt. I would stand post for the younger guys, and they got first dibs on the (satellite) phone to call home. The best thing I did was talk to my Marines and listen, and share all the goodies that got sent to me ... Christmas was kind of lame; we didn't do patrols and NCOs stood post and took care of the younger guys on their first trip away during the holidays.

“My second trip back to Ramadi was the Wild West ... we had a goat for Thanksgiving and on Christmas we got a tree with shell casings as decorations … Christmas in Afghanistan was the best. The Air Force guys had someone dress up as a Santa and delivered a huge red sack full of goodies out of a CH-53 (helicopter). The best thing was seeing Santa with a M4 (rifle), ready to spread cheer and fight if needed. Even the locals thought it was awesome. By the way, my son leaves in July for Parris Island (boot camp).”

Jim Laubler: “I missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. They sent up some aluminum trays of turkey and other stuff. I can't remember Christmas. But we all hated not being with the family and kids. I'm thankful that the war was short, although I'd say the majority of us were angry we didn't finish the job.”

Howard Heh: “As a fellow veteran, I currently volunteer for the USO. I hope many of the servicemen and women are receiving the many care package items sent to them. Maybe they might even have seen some of the entertainment and shows they put on to help keep their spirits up. I hope so. God bless them all.”

Although it's not publicized as much outside of the recent debacle of pulling our troops out of Afghanistan we still have military personnel in harm's way in other parts of the world. We should not forget them during our family get-togethers, Christmas parties and other seasonal festivities. They're on the front lines of freedom, sacrificing time away from their own families, and deserve our gratitude and prayers.

Mark Millican is a former staff writer for the Daily Citizen-News.

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