I spent Christmas walking a guard post in Germany in 1981, when I was 20 years old. As a young Army private who was Jewish — this was more than 10 years before I converted to Roman Catholicism — I volunteered to take the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day guard duties of pals who were Christian so they could properly celebrate the holiday.
For any formerly-clad-in-Army-green veteran who has ever pulled peacetime guard duty, one thing is pretty certain. You’re going to be bored. Marching two and fro with, in those days, a PRC-77 radio on your back and your M-16 slung on your shoulder was not the ultimate in high-voltage excitement.
Many of us cheated, definitely against regs, and brought a civilian radio with us. As much of the duty was in the wee hours, Armed Forces Radio in Germany for some reason reserved that time to play “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.” It got us through the duty.
You’d listen to it and it would remind you of home — of the dances you weren’t going to, of the friends there you were missing, of family that would be spending the holiday without you. Because even Jewish kids celebrated the secular aspect of Christmas and, at least this one did, felt happy and hopeful during the season.
We would feel happier and more hopeful, though, at home. For me, that would have been lying on a beach in Hollywood, Florida, and awaiting a big Cuban Christmas lunch.
It’s not like the Army didn’t try to make up for it. Food on Christmas Day was sumptuous and the mess hall was decked out to the nines. It was supposed to make you feel the spirit of the day and also feel less away from home.
But in typical Army social fashion — well meaning but off the mark — the overcompensation for the day only reminded you that you weren’t home.
But that was the day ahead when you were walking guard at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning. And after all those hours of thinking and listening to the likes of Duran Duran and Sheena Easton, courtesy of Casey Kasem, you came to an understanding of why you were out there walking to and fro at the early beginning of a cold Neu-Ulm Germany day.
Or at least you got the simple and generally-devoid-of-proper-life-experience kind of understanding available to most 20-year- olds.
You were out there so the people you missed in the states could spend Christmas at home.
Those of us who held the line in West Germany — our forces and our allies did that for over 40 years — did so because just across the thin, flat plain in the north and the mountainous terrain in the south that made up the border with East Germany were a lot of guys who would have replaced that religious holiday with something far different.
A soldier kind of got that, as you walked. And when your relief came and you made your way back to the guardhouse, there was a certain sense of warmth and satisfaction, knowing you were there so the people you loved didn’t have to be.
I have no doubt it will be the same this Christmas Eve. Men and women who wear our uniform all over the world will walk the same kind of guard duty or pull a watch and ponder exactly why they are doing it.
When they get it and feel the reason why, it’ll make the day a bit better for them.
Their devotion to duty and their sacrifice makes all the days a bit better for us.