On Point

The Christmas Rush

by Austin Bay
December 26, 2002

This December, "the Christmas rush" means something different for American military personnel.

Troops beef up units in the Persian Gulf. Sailors and marines face prolonged deployments as destroyers examine curious cargoes, and carrier groups maintain station in the Arabian Sea. At home, a slew of reservists know January may well mean an extended active tour.

Christmas? Soft peddle the Merry. New Years? 2003 will not be a party.

2002 ends in crisis, but name a recent year that hasn't? Peace on Earth is a great, empowering hope, but it's a dim and distant prospect. In our broken world, the uneasy quiet that passes for peace anywhere on the planet is usually a lucky concoction, a mix of genuine goodwill, complex self-interest, mutual economic interest and armed vigilance.

Like it or not, at this point in world history American economic vitality, military vigilance and diplomatic engagement remain central to stabilizing the most threatening geopolitical conflicts and promoting peaceful resolution. There are many people who will say -- with callous accuracy -- that for servicemen and servicewomen hard duty is their job. They signed up to go whenever and wherever they are sent.

That's true. But consider the persistent demands we have made on service members and their families over the last 13 years, the baker's dozen since the end of the Cold War.

Christmas 1989: Operation Just Cause in Panama. Christmas 1990: Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield, prelude to Operation Desert Storm. Christmas 1992: Somalia is on the horizon. Christmas 1993: Somalia, again, and new worries about North Korea. Christmas 1994: The pace of air and naval deployments to the Balkans increases. USAF, Marine and Army reservists reinforce regulars in Panama and Guantanamo to work the Cuban migrant camps. Troops deploy to Kuwait, responding to saber-rattling by Saddam. U.S. troops are also assigned to Macedonia.

Christmas 1995: the Bosnia occupation, which was to last a year but still remains an American duty post. In the background, the Navy continues to enforce the U.N. embargo against Iraq and patrol the Persian Gulf. Fall 1998: the Hurricane Mitch relief operation in Central America, with U.S. forces playing a major role in the relief and recovery effort. Spring 1999: the Kosovo War, which by Christmas 1999 becomes occupation duty. Fall 2001: Afghanistan, the duty station in December 2002 for the 82nd Airborne Division. December 2002: uncertainty on the Korean DMZ, as the ramp up for action against Saddam continues.

This list, though incomplete, makes the point.

Anyone who has ever worn a uniform and spent the Christmas holidays guarding the motor pool, flying a mission or dodging bullets cannot help but recognize our soldiers' sacrifice and applaud their commitment.

The personal burden is real. At the moment, two friends of mine are deployed in Kuwait. Another recently completed a tour in Afghanistan. A couple of Decembers ago, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that her brother-in-law, an Air Force air rescue pilot, was on his way back to the Balkans. She wrote, "My brother-in-law spends probably 70 percent of the year away from home."

That's a commanding example of service -- service above all else. And it is more than the pilot's service, for his family's sacrifice is an integral part of a war -- or peacekeeping -- effort.

When the holidays roll around, so many soldiers feel forgotten. Many of their families feel not only the pain of separation but also wonder if others care. Since 9-11, the American public is more aware and more appreciative. The "Vietnam syndrome," where the military took the blame for the Johnson and Nixon administrations' Southeast Asian failures, has largely faded, but separation is still separation. There are many Americans spending the holidays flying missions, clearing mines, doing the tough tasks in the hard corners. This Christmas and New Years, let us salute their dedication.

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