Instead of spending Christmas in a combat zone thinking about home, I spent Christmas 2003 at home, thinking about Iraq and my imminent return. Along with tens of thousands of others, I was allowed two weeks of leave from Iraq. Some took advantage of the opportunity and went home. One fellow officer met his wife in Germany. Others, and there were more than a few, decided to save that leave (and the extra money it represented) and remain in Iraq.
I wasn't interested in the money - I wanted to be with my family. I had not seen them in over ten months. Although the pain of returning to Iraq would be great, the memories from those two weeks would be priceless. The sharp ache of a temporary loss of a loved one dulls with time. After a while I got used to living without my family. The quality of my life wasn't as good but I was able to focus on the task at hand. Coming home would open that wound and renew that ache, but I didn't care.
I was fortunate in that I was able to get two weeks of leave that encompassed Christmas and New Year's. So it was that on December 21, 2003, nine months to the day after I left the United State for the Middle East, I returned home. That day turned out to be the longest day of my life, and not just because I had a series of long plane flights to endure on the way to see my family after a long absence. The day was, literally, the longest day of my life. I departed a U.S. Air Force base in the country of Qatar at 12:30 A.M. on December 21 for Germany, then Baltimore, then Atlanta, and finally arrived at Tallahassee at 9:30 P.M. on the same day, 32 hours later.
Christmas 2003 was a wonderful experience for me, and filled with remarkable contrasts to the life that I had so recently been living. Yet, my mind was detached in many ways from the events around me. I felt guilty that I was at home for the holidays while so many of my comrades were still in Iraq. And the biggest feeling that stayed with me, one that I carried around like a heavily weighted rucksack, was the knowledge that I had to return to Iraq on January 5, 2004.
Yes, I know, one is supposed to live in the moment, but it was hard.
As Christmas 2008 approaches I think about all the service men and woman in harm's way around the world, away from home on the holidays. And I still feel a trace of guilt. I am at home with my family, and they aren't. Yes, I know, the guilt is not logical, but it's hard for me not to feel it. I have something in common with them, something that we shared and continue to share.
And right now, five years later, I still feel that bond with them. I truly hope that it never goes away. To all of you out there in uniform, doing a nasty, rotten job away from home and family during the holidays, I send you my very best wishes, and sincere hope that you will return home safe. God speed and God bless.