In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
In December 1966, a helicopter sat on the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam with its crew of five on "stand by." These stand-by assignments were really "sit stills" — you had to be in the chopper and ready to fly a CAP (combat air patrol) at a moment's notice. Many times it was eight hours of sitting and waiting, and not flying.
The pilot of the helicopter was a 24-year old lieutenant fresh from the farm fields of Illinois via flight school in Pensacola. His crewmates, some younger, but none much older, sat and stared out at the pitch black trying to make out the shape of the Navy fueler that had pulled alongside earlier in the day, but which now melted into the blackness of the ocean at night. Occasionally, one of the crew would flip on a red-lensed flashlight to check the time. There was little radio traffic through the headsets and all conversations were conducted at a whisper given the EMCOM (emergency communications only) status — the wind rushing by the open side panel of the chopper the most persistent sound.
About midnight, a lone sailor approached and slid an armful of packages and letters across the floor. "Mail call," he whispered, turned and departed. Under the red glow of a flashlight, the parcels were divvied up to their recipients; the largest of the parcels was passed along to the pilot.
The large box revealed a tin of homemade fudge from the local church, cookies from his mother's closest friend, and a smaller gift-wrapped box. Inside the Marshall Field & Co. box from his parents was a small table-top sized Christmas tree about 15 inches high: the stiff artificial fir was adorned with small, painted wooden ornaments, shiny gold ornaments and green and red ribbon bows. The pilot set the tree on the floor next to his seat. They all admired the quaint little tree under the glow of the red light until a slight knock elicited a few notes from an undetected music box within. With a twist of the base, the tree began to play "Oh, Christmas Tree." As they sat in the dark, 10 months into a 14-month tour, some away from home at Christmas for the first time, the crew sat in the dark and listened to The Tree's tinkling serenade for the next few hours, eating fudge and cookies and trying hard not to let each other hear their sniffles.
That Christmas tree traveled with my Dear Husband for the more than two decades of his Navy service, and was the only Christmas decoration in many an aircraft carrier's bunkroom over the years. To this day, more than 40 years later, it occupies a place of honor in our home each Christmas. It is referred to by all in the household as "The Christmas Tree." The Tree.
Every Christmas Eve, the story of how The Tree came to be is told — our now-grown children still insist that their Dad tell the story, even when he or I protest that "Everyone knows the story!" It has become a tradition in our home and one in which our children willingly and eagerly participate.
The last Christmas Eve that his sweet father celebrated was the first time my husband's parents heard the story of how The Tree had been received and they, in kind, told us how they had traveled to the big city of Chicago from their small farm community to purchase "something nice" for their oldest son who was fighting in a war far from home. They had never imagined the impact such a small gesture would have on generations to come.
When our oldest son joined the Navy in 1998, his first duty station was overseas. He was not deployed to a combat zone, but he was far from home and family at Christmas. We decided that because it had meant so much to my husband, the tradition of receiving a musical tree for the first Christmas overseas in service to our country should be continued. We spent many an afternoon all through that October and November scouring malls and shops for just the right tree.
There were some requirements for The Tree: It must not be too breakable, since we hoped it would travel with him for many years. It could not be too big (or it would be tough to ship and move around with all his other possessions) nor too small (or what would be the point?). It could not have decorations that could be easily broken or misplaced, or that required some high degree of care. It must play music. It was, "We'll know it when we see it."
We did find Jason's Tree. In my best calligraphy, we marked the bottom in jeweler's gold with his name and the year, just as I had done to the bottom of my husband's tree.
On Christmas Eve 2004, during leave just weeks before our youngest son's anticipated 15-month deployment to Iraq, the story of The Tree was told again, and as the story ended, our soldier exclaimed, "You know that means I get my tree next year!" I could only nod in tearful silence and left his Dad to respond, "You bet!"
So there we were in July 2005, 100 degrees outside — most of the nation gripped in record heat — searching the web, catalogs and year-round Christmas stores for just the right tree to send to Noah. We hadn't yet located that special tree when Noah was wounded in Ramadi, Iraq and the search for the tree was put on hold.
As summer turned to fall and Noah's recovery progressed, we exhaled and decided once again to focus on the approach of Christmas. We began to think about The Tree again. We knew that Noah had well-earned his deployment tree even if he would be Stateside for Christmas, so we renewed the search for his Tree.
We found it, and as I had done twice before, I wrote the name and deployment dates in jeweler's gold on the bottom in my best calligraphy and sent it to him. Since he has been medically discharged, and until he has a home of his own, Noah's Tree has joined The Tree in a place of honor in our home.
This year, we will tell the story of The Tree — and of Noah's Tree — to a new generation of family, and although at 2 years old, young master Tom is too young to grasp the importance of this tradition, it must be told... for we must never forget that some must go to fight the dragon... and they must be honored and remembered.
Blogger, Some Soldier's Mom. On what it's like to have a child at war.
Looking Back on Five Years of Lessons Learned as a Soldier's Mom »
Vigilance: The Good Kind »
The Bonds That Tie »
The Tradition of the Christmas Tree »
PTSD: A Different Perspective, Part II »