News: A Downrange Christmas
Story by Lt.j.g. Matthew Stroup
FARAH PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Christmas, or the holiday season, depending on your personal preference, is a great time of year. Most, if not all of us, can remember at least one year that Santa brought us the toy that we wanted, a year that we spent quality times with loved ones around a Christmas tree opening presents. It is a time to remember the loved ones who made our season bright and who are no longer able to join us, and it is a time to make new memories that can carry us through when the going sometimes gets tough. Quite simply, it’s a great time of the year.
Thousands of deployed service members each year spend Christmas away from home. And despite how tough it can be on service members and their families, we all do our very best to make it an enjoyable time for ourselves and our teammates. We send Christmas cards home (when there is time to write), put up pictures of loved ones, hang hand-drawn pictures and Christmas trees our kids sent us (thanks sweetheart!), and we eat treats that come in our care packages. We decorate doors, plan Christmas Cookouts, light Christmas trees and spend time sharing family stories with old and new friends alike.
Some of us have unique opportunities to share traditions with coalition partners too. This year, our team at Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah will have an opportunity to celebrate the season with Italian and Slovenian brothers and sisters-in-arms. We’ll eat seasonal and traditional food, share holiday treats, drink espresso and probably even play a little soccer. We really will have the best of three separate Christmastime worlds.
Here on FOB Farah, we receive quite a few packages during mail call, and certainly a few extra during the holidays. I’ve personally received packages from people I don’t know. Whether from a family member or from someone who put my name on a distribution list, I very much appreciate the thought, time, effort and resources that go into putting the packages together. Just the other day I received a package from the AT&T Pioneers and the Gilbert Brown Foundation. It was a great care package, and though I don’t know what the impetus was for that random act of kindness, it lifted my day.
But my favorite Christmas story this year so far has to do with a good friend of mine, Lt. j.g. Laura Cook, our team’s physician assistant from Tavares, Fl. You see, Laura sent a note home Veteran’s Day weekend. She wanted to tell family and friends what she did here in Farah, and how things were a month into deployment. She didn’t receive many responses, as it was a holiday weekend, and as we get here sometimes, she was a little bummed. But, despite a lack of response, people back home were interested. They shared her email, discussed it amongst friends, and soon enough it came across Lauren Ritchie’s desk at the Orlando Sentinel. Lauren reached out to Laura to talk about her experiences here with Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah, and Lauren wrote a brief article in the Lake County edition of the Sentinel which you can see here: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/lake/os-lk-lauren-ritchie-tavares-soldier-afghanistan-20121128,0,4097386.column.
And then it happened. People started sending letters and packages to Laura that she has shared with the team. Since that article has gone out, Laura’s received over 70 letters and 85 care packages from people she would never have met had Lauren never reached out to talk to Laura. The support has been so tremendous that just the other day, Laura and her friends set up tables in an empty CONEX box so that our security force team could go through and select items that they wanted. The boxes are still coming in, and at least a few more boxes are still in transit to us here from the small article that Lauren wrote.
Laura has shared some of the letters with me and her favorite is a note from a 79-year-old couple in Lake County. They told her that they were feeling “crabby” about making a difficult move to a new home, but after reading Lauren’s article they decided they were being wimpy and put together a box of Christmas cheer for us – before unloading 79 years’ worth of boxes into their new home. To top it all off, they promised Laura that they wouldn’t feel sorry for themselves anymore.
So why do I share this? It certainly isn’t to petition for more care packages. Laura and Laurens’ story is indicative to me that there are still good things going on in this world. There is plenty of tragedy to share - here in Afghanistan, in other countries around the world, and as we saw last week, even in the United States. And while a few care packages might not fix the world’s problems, the thought, care and concern for another human being, someone you don’t even know, is a staggering reminder of how we should all act year round. Treating others as we would like to be treated is certainly a good start on fixing some of our problems. It’s even better when we can brighten someone else’s day before we worry about our own.
My friends and I, despite being a very small piece of a very big puzzle, are happy to be here in Farah serving you this Christmas season. Sure we’d rather be home with loved ones, opening presents with our kids, drinking egg nog, singing carols or heading to a midnight Christmas Eve service, but we’ve been asked to do a job, and we’re here to do it with honor and pride. And while we pause to take a short break this holiday season to open a package or spend time with our coalition friends, we tip our caps to the people at home who help our families along throughout the year when we can’t be there, and to those who drop the occasional letter in the mail reminding us that we’re loved and we’re missed. Thank you very much for your continued support in big and small ways.
Have a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.
PRT Farah’s mission is to train, advise and assist Afghan government leaders at the municipal, district, and provincial levels in Farah province, Afghanistan. Their civil-military team is comprised of members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). To see what they’ve been up to, check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PRTFRH.