Ghosts of Christmas Past
Christmas ... is not an external event at all, but a piece of one's home that one carries in one's heart.
-- FREYA STARK
The interior of the UH-60 Black Hawk was dark to avoid presenting a glowing target in the night sky. Gunners on either side of the helicopter manned machine guns, maintaining a constant vigil for enemy threats. Below, the rugged Afghan landscape, devoid of any speck of man-made light, was even darker. I could just make out hills, valleys, and an occasional mud- brown compound. Inside the aircraft it was cold, and I pulled my parka tightly around me. The army-issue gear was far better than it had been in the early years of my career, but lately I seemed to feel the cold more than I had back then. It was 2009 and at 55, I wasn't the young lieutenant I'd been 34 years earlier. At best, I was a well-worn version of the officer who had spent so many nights like this one alongside warriors.
In a few hours it would be Christmas. Although I didn't know it at the time, it would be my last as a soldier.
I looked around at the other men on the aircraft. Although we all wore headsets connected through the UH-60's intercom system, we rarely spoke. Normally during long night flights, men were lost in thought, and, especially tonight, I respected their solitude. The eight years of war since 9/11 had meant several Christmases away from home for most of these men. For soldiers at war, there's comforting continuity in the traditions and inevitability of Christmas. We savored memories of Christmases past, made the most of, or endured, the one we had at the time, and dreamed incessantly about those we'd have in the future. I felt a bit like Dickens's Scrooge pushing them so hard on a night that should be special. For each of us, Christmas stirred deep memories and strong emotions. But this was the life of our choice.
Sitting directly across from me was my aide, Major Casey Welch, no doubt thinking about his wife and two small children. Casey had spent 27 months in combat in Iraq, including a tough year in Samarra. He had been home for only five months when I had been designated to command in Afghanistan and he had volunteered to deploy again.
Sitting next to Casey was an unimposing figure hunched over a dimly lit laptop. The reading glasses and lines on his face matched mine. I couldn't help but smile slightly as I watched him work. Mike Hall was my old friend and, more important, the finest soldier I'd ever known. After over 30 years of service and then 18 months at a good civilian job, a phone call had brought the retired command sergeant major back on active duty to become the senior enlisted adviser of all international forces in Afghanistan. Now he would spend yet another Christmas away from his wife, Brenda, and son, Jeff.
Charlie sat to my left, close by, as always. I had known Colonel Charlie Flynn since he was a lieutenant 23 years earlier, and I remembered how his first child, Molly, had been born while Charlie was deployed to the first Gulf War. A couple of years later he'd commanded a company for me in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and his young son Sean was climbing over pews at Christmas Eve Mass in the historic Fort Lewis chapel. Thirteen years later, upon his redeployment in 2008 from his fourth combat tour — fifteen months commanding a brigade combat team in Iraq — I'd asked him to join me in the Pentagon as my executive assistant. When alerted for Afghanistan in May of 2009, the first two officers I sought to form the nucleus of the team were Charlie and his older brother Mike.
Just behind the bird's pilots sat Chief Warrant Officer Shawn Lowery, the man responsible for our security. With a shaved head and a serious countenance, Shawn's all-business gravitas masked a dry, wicked sense of humor. He'd pronounced himself "unenthusiastic" about my decision not to wear body armor some months prior, but took the decision in stride. Shawn had been back from his most recent tour in Afghanistan less than a year when I was notified to deploy. But he had volunteered without hesitation to go forward again.
As the December air rushed in the open windows where the door guns were mounted, I readied myself for the next stop. Continuing a tradition of military commanders, starting that afternoon we'd begun a journey to visit six outposts on Christmas Eve. The next would be the fifth. At each location we spent time with soldiers, gave them a short talk, normally in their mess hall, and took the opportunity to circulate, pose for pictures that they could send home, and, most important, thank them. It was tiring but unfailingly inspiring to me. A few hours later, on Christmas Day, we'd launch again to six other bases, several manned by soldiers from our coalition partners. Christmases with Polish and Romanian troops, including religious ceremonies in crude bunkers and huts, were deeply spiritual experiences.
Soothed by the rhythmic vibration of the rotors, my mind wandered to the more than half century of Christmases I'd experienced. I remembered early-morning excitement as my four brothers, one sister, and I rushed down to the living room of our small Arlington, Virginia, house, where presents from Santa Claus were reliably piled for each of us. I most loved getting toy soldiers I could use with the handcrafted wooden forts my father built and my mother painted. During the years my father was in Vietnam, my mother struggled to make Christmases special. I could only guess how my father felt until I got a taste as a young captain in Korea during my first yearlong separation from my wife, Annie. Along the DMZ on Christmas Eve, a well-intentioned morale visit to our unit by a USO tour only made me miss Annie, and Christmas, all the more.
Becoming a father made Christmas more important to me than ever. Fatherhood was a great excuse to play with toys again. I remember the fun Annie and I had staying up late assembling a plastic fort for my son Sam's Rambo figurines, and I could still hear my father shaming me into finally buying Annie a color TV. Even memories of punji stake–like pain from stepping barefoot on a rogue Lego block now brought a smile. I wanted the young men and women I'd visit that night to know that I understood the ache inherent in Christmas so far from home.
I had spent four straight Christmases, starting in 2004, in Iraq or Afghanistan, typically traveling to be in one location on Christmas Eve, then making a night flight to be in the other on Christmas Day. I'd listen to Christmas music on my iPod, particularly Alabama's "Christmas in Dixie," which made me homesick, but I couldn't help it. And I knew that as much as I missed Annie and Sam, young soldiers bore the heavier burden of missing the all-too-temporary magic of their children's holiday joy.
As we reached the forward operating base, or FOB, we could see from the air the series of simple buildings constructed of Afghan bricks and mortar. It was a small, fortified outpost manned by a combined U. S. and Afghan force totaling about 75 soldiers. Its position on high ground above Afghanistan's open terrain gave it a deceptively imposing Beau Geste–like appearance. But its only real strength lay in the effectiveness of the soldiers inside. In a few minutes I'd be able to see that for myself. We landed a couple hundred meters away and walked with the commanding officer through the gate and into the outpost.
Because it was dark and cold, we met the soldiers inside. Like most small outposts, this one was rudimentary but functional. Generators provided power. There was a small operations and communications center, bay barracks in which groups of soldiers arranged bunks and gear, and a mess hall. Small trees and other decorations, obviously sent by loved ones, brought Christmas into the crude surroundings. Except for some of the more modern equipment, soldiers on similar counterinsurgency duty in the American West in 1868, the Philippines in 1900, Malaya in 1950, Indochina in 1952, Algeria in 1956, or Vietnam in 1965 might have found the outpost familiar. It was warfare at its most basic, where success depended more on lieutenants, sergeants, and privates in lonely forts or on small patrols than on grand plans in a generals' headquarters.
As always, the officers and senior noncommissioned officers were polite and forthcoming, but the younger troops were initially distant and uncommunicative, as though they were only there because they'd been directed to show up. Their reticence didn't bother me. It was always that way. Only afterward, when Mike Hall and I spoke to them as a group, presented some hard-earned awards, and then mingled, offering to pose for pictures and answer questions, did they loosen up. Before long, the gathering became animated, and I felt connected to them.
As we prepared to reboard the UH-60 to fly to our final stop for the night, several groups asked to take pictures with Mike and me. While we assembled one group, I introduced myself to a young soldier. As I always tried to do, I began by looking at the rank and name tape on his combat uniform so I could address him as personally as possible. I read his name and paused. Then I asked him quietly if his father had been a soldier. He said that he had. I cautiously asked if his father had been a Ranger. The young man, anticipating what I was trying to determine, confirmed that his father had been a Ranger whom I had known well. After leaving the Rangers, his father had joined an elite Army commando unit and had been killed in 2005 in a nighttime raid on an Al Qaeda safe house. He had been lost under my command, during a summer of bitter fighting in Iraq's Western Euphrates River valley, at a critical juncture in a war that now felt a lifetime past. Now his young son had taken his place in the ranks. For a moment I was silent.
There was no outward drama or emotion. The young man clearly sought no special recognition. It felt strangely natural. I asked about his mother and soon moved on to talk to other young soldiers. But as I did, it struck me that, in an era when military service is a question of choice, he, like his father, had chosen to spend Christmas in rough surroundings. I looked around the room at the young soldiers and their slightly older sergeants. They had all made the same choice.
On the flight north that night, I absorbed the continuity of war. I knew from history that war comes with frightening regularity, often fought over the same ground and similar causes as previous conflicts. Wars often begin with enthusiastic vigor but typically settle into costly, dirty business characterized for soldiers by fear, frustration, and loneliness.
There was also continuity in soldiers. In the young soldiers on outposts, in the sergeants and junior officers who led them, and particularly in the team of professionals I worked alongside each day — the Charlies, Mikes, Caseys, and Shawns — I felt the unbroken tradition of commitment to a mission, and a fierce commitment to one another. Like the generations they followed and those they now led, they came forward when called and sacrificed when needed. They did so quietly, often in shadows, with no expectation of reward. They were no better than their grandfathers, and not a bit worse.
And there was Christmas.
Excerpted from MY SHARE OF THE TASK: A Memoir. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright Stanley McChrystal, 2013.