By Ray Starmann
The holiday season seems to go on forever, only to finally extinguish itself in a brilliant blaze of football and parades on New Year’s Day. It is an endless litany of Christmas music and movies, a bustling, shopping mania. The season practically drowns in the myriad of commercials, advertising everything material one can purchase.
It’s a season of family time and families making plans to go here or there and everywhere. It is a frenetic period of apparent jovial distractions from life’s endless responsibilities.
To a vet, the holiday season is something else entirely.
Is Christmas ever the same again, when you’ve spent it in a war zone?
For all vets, no matter what their circumstances, both personal and financial, the holiday season can sometimes be the loneliest time of the year…
You may think you know a vet, but do you? Many of them hide many of their feelings, in order to avoid speaking of times with people who have never experienced what they did.
What are vets thinking about during the holidays?
My uncle, who served in the Special Forces in Vietnam, would disappear from the rest of the family on Christmas Day. I would seek him out and always find him, sitting by himself, staring at the wall, in an almost catatonic state. I would say nothing and leave him and only when someone asked where he was, would I tell my father, also a Vietnam vet, who would go and pry him loose from his memories.
Veterans who have spent the holidays in a war zone seemed to have been changed by that alone, among hundreds of other things that altered them forever.
Sometimes vets appear to be a casual observer during the holidays; watching others celebrate Christmas, as if it was an out of body experience for them. As family members tear open presents, a vet may recall tearing open a box of rations, or in worse cases, a crate of ammo.
Vets may be thinking of when they spent Christmas with their buddies, some of whom never made it back.
They remember when the only Christmas tree they had may have been something they scrounged and made out of anything available.
Listening to a Christmas carol may cause a vet to remember hearing that song on AFN or on a transistor radio, beaming thousands of miles away from their location.
Above all days, Christmas was the great equalizer in the service. No one in a war zone was exempt from the maudlin feeling of being far away from home in dangerous circumstances. On Christmas Day, everyone was in the same boat, whether you were a private or a general; you were all together.
A gift may have been a roll of toilet paper or a ration you always wanted, but could never find, but somehow your buddy dug up for you.
Vets could be remembering being scared on Christmas, not knowing if the enemy would use the holiday as an excuse to launch a major attack. On the other hand, maybe they were under attack or in continuous combat on the holiest of days. Maybe Silent Night was the only thing they wanted for Christmas or for the rest of their lives.
Maybe it was so cold on Christmas for a vet that the sight of a wintery day makes them shiver violently even though they’re inside a warm house, decades later.
For a vet the saturation of commerciality might be too much too handle. The parade of presents and relatives and food seems so excessive when the most poignant Christmas you spent was in a foxhole or in a tent or on a ship.
To a vet, a fully loaded table with all the trimmings may never be as meaningful as the Christmas when you broke open a MRE inside your Bradley.
What civilians think is an endless celebration, can be overblown to a vet. To a vet, Christmas in the most hellish of circumstances, can still be more moving than a thousand holidays afterwards.
It’s not to say that vets don’t yearn for the holidays every year. Everyone loves the holiday season. But, to a vet, it’s really a journey into another realm of endless soul searing memories; some good, some bad, but all so vivid that they seemed to have happened only yesterday, when yesterday is ten or twenty or fifty or seventy years ago.
So, if you see a vet this week who seems lost in thought when everyone else is chatting and eating and drinking, know that vet is celebrating the holidays too, but with those he or she knew, long ago, in a place far removed from the reality of today.