On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
The Christmas Mega Mail Drop is one of the most chaotic experiences in a line infantry company's deployment. Chinook helicopters filled to capacity with flat-rate Priority Mail boxes land on outposts across the desert, purging the mail delivery system of thousands of Christmas packages intended for soldiers over the holidays.
On Christmas 2009, I was reading in my bunker when I heard the crowd of cheering soldiers outside. Three cargo vehicles pulled up to our Company area, each truck bed stacked six feet tall with boxes. In a brilliant moment of instinctive team work, an assembly line formed with a hundred aggressive soldiers giving less than considerable care for each other's packages as they hunted for the ones bearing their own names.
As soldiers found their packages from home, the assembly line dwindled. Knifes sliced through cardboard to find Xboxes, DVDs and more candy than you could eat in a lifetime. I remember one of my boys screaming, "It's just like Christmas! Except no tree... and I'm in Afghanistan... with a bunch of dudes! Gaahhh!"
This scene reminded me more of a Wal-Mart on Black Friday than a war zone. The Company had turned into an overbearing, though relatively harmless, mob of shoppers on a mission. But it's important to understand that this mental regression was long in the making.
Our Company certainly grew into a family of sorts over our tour, but the only thing more fulfilling than forging bonds with a brother in arms is witnessing the love he shares with the family waiting for him back home. We may have sounded like a superficial group of teenage girls, prying for our Christmas prizes, but deep down there was something deeper at play during this Christmas package madness. It was a reunion — like families filtering through crowded airport reception lines to find their loved ones exiting the terminal. But there wasn't any family here, just boxes. Yet to these young men, the gifts, no matter how big or small, embodied the love of the people they missed most.
The soldiers searched for their packages with the same passion with which they would search for their wives. They embraced the cardboard containers with the same fervor with which they would hug their children. This wasn't your typical Black Friday sweep through a department store. It was a reunion — a reunion of love transferred in the form of thoughtfully purchased electronics and dry, crumbled cookies.
The episode warmed my heart, but was it really unique to soldiers in theater? I don't think so. I spend a lot of talking about the lessons I have learned about Afghanistan, about war, about humanity, but in the midst of the mail-drop chaos, the greatest lesson I took away was most notably about America, and Americans.
There really isn't much of a difference between the soldier sifting for his personal care package and the majority of Americans running around shopping malls, trying to buy a Christmas miracle with a credit card. The truth is we're all looking to fill a void. For a soldier in Afghanistan, it's easy to figure out what's missing. But for the rest of America, where everything seems to be safe and stable, the void can be difficult to diagnose. My guess is it's the impersonal manner in which we engage modern life: the 70-hour work weeks, the hour-long commutes, the DVR recorded reality shows, the Blueberries, the Blacktooths, the MyFace pages and Spacebook profiles.
I sense a growing void in the American family. It's a void of expression: the expression of love, the expression of caring. How often do Americans just sit around as families and talk these days? How often do kids get to spend a whole day with their parents? How often do college students return from school and spend their nights at home with their siblings? My soldiers may have been 6,000 miles from their families in Afghanistan, but I'll bet we were still closer to our loved ones than many American families who live in the same household together. There is a void of expression in our country, and it breeds an unhealthy transference of value to objects — gifts — that cannot fill it.
There is a reason why the United States Army is the strongest force on the planet, and there is a reason why our country holds the American Soldier in the highest regard. It's not because soldiers are brave, or because we do jobs that others don't want to do. It's because each soldier has someone in their history, someone behind the scenes, who believed in them. Those people in the background are the strength of this country, and it just so happens that soldiers are privy to experiences that prove how important those loving parents and mentors are. It's why we fight so hard and why we love so dearly.
This holiday season, I hope you will express your love and gratitude to the people in your life who give you the strength to overcome challenges, and pay that mentorship forward to those who need it more than you do. At the end of the day, a fancy Droid or iPhone can do a lot of things, but it just can't substitute for a warm hug.
Well... at least not yet. I'm sure there's an app in the making for it somewhere.
1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan