Christmas with the Troops in Germany

For two weeks before Christmas, my researcher and I had the opportunity to stay with the 95th Military Police Battalion in Mannheim, Germany. For me it was a bit of a homecoming, as I had spent a brief time with the unit in Iraq last year. Some of the non-commissioned officers who met me in Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, a forlorn base southeast of Baghdad, recognized me and it was great to see them again.

In contrast to Mannheim — clean, tall stone barracks and offices that date from the World War II period that still have swastikas embossed into metal stairwell posts — FOB Rusty was a dismal, austere camp surrounded on three sides by scores of acres of constantly burning Iraqi garbage dumps. The nauseous atmosphere was so horrific that soldiers departing the facility had letters placed in their medical files stating that any future respiratory issues could likely be traced to their exposure to Rusty’s toxic air.

Incoming rocket and mortar fire from insurgents in nearby Sadr City was so prevalent that one of the NCOs said that everyone who served at FOB Rusty was awarded a Combat Action Badge. One morning returning from a mess hall breakfast (today’s soldiers call it the "dining facility" but old habits die hard) we watched soldiers roll under armored vehicles for protection as rockets hissed over our heads.

The contrasts to crisp German winter air and comfortable living were palpable.

But we weren’t in Mannheim for a holiday vacation. The 95th MP Battalion is preparing to deploy again — this time to southeastern Afghanistan — and we were there to begin an embed with the officers, non-coms, and soldiers that will take us downrange with them in February.

We want to tell their stories because most of them will not have the opportunity to do so — everyone is not a writer — and in many cases soldiers are reluctant to speak to an audience that may misconstrue their words. So we’ve taken on the mission to tell their stories for them.

As we walked the snow-dusted forests of Grafenwoehr training grounds with them for a week and met with them back at Mannheim, we learned much from the members of the 95th. We met new soldiers eager — if a bit anxious — about their first combat deployment and experienced officers and NCOs who are returning to the fight, some for their second, third, or even fourth times.

This war, with its many theaters is imposing an incredible demand on soldiers and their families, and though they hide it well, it shows around the edges.

To our delight, we were invited to a unit Christmas party two nights before we were scheduled to depart. The home-cooked food was tasty and filling, the drinks were soft (this is a teetotaling Army, unlike the free-wheeling times many of us older soldiers remember), and the company refreshing. An officer donned a Santa suit, and kids either swarmed him or avoided him, as children are wont to do.

Families seemed relaxed and casual but it was apparent that for everyone awareness of a ticking clock dominated their thoughts. For some families the service member has not been back a year and is now going again. Other families — another sign of a new Army — are married couples who have to arrange for grandparents to care for children or friends to watch pets while they deploy.

The area of operations in which the battalion will be posted is a tough one. Then, Afghanistan is getting more dangerous overall, and the concept of a "safe" area in country is deceptive. Everyone is aware of this and accepts the fact, each in his or her own way. They are soldiers and families of soldiers and are aware that when given a mission it is their sworn duty to carry it out to the best of their abilities.

Perhaps it is this embracing of the concept of duty and responsibility, on both an individual and unit level, that makes these men and women so remarkable. Absent are complaints about the inconvenient timing of deployment or whining about the unfairness of some having to go while others remain behind. In fact, the only disgruntled voices we heard were from soldiers who were designated to be in the rear detachment, staying at Mannheim. They are upset that they don’t get to deploy with their comrades.

Now that the president has announced that 30,000 more soldiers are going to be sent to the war these scenes are going to be repeated around the country and around the globe wherever US forces are stationed. In the midst of a season that traditionally offers the civilian world a bit of respite from the hectic schedules of the work place service men and women are packing rucksacks, drawing weapons, and preparing to go — quite willingly — into harm’s way.

Sadly, we know that there will be losses. Such is the cruel inevitability of war. Leaders have pledged not to risk soldiers’ lives irresponsibly, but the enemy they will confront is smart, cunning, and inventive. He will not win against these soldiers but will extract a price in blood and pain.

As a nation we have become disengaged from our military. Fewer than 1% of Americans have served. While we generally support our soldiers — a good thing in contrast to some past wars — we are distant from them and have a difficult time imagining what it must be like to be in their boots.

We demand much from them and they ask little in return. They want public support, of course, and deserve no less. They want a clear mission statement, a commitment from national leadership that allows them to win the fight, not merely risk their lives for political advantage. Such concerns are reasonable considering what we ask in return.

When they return to work after this brief holiday period it will be to engage in a deadly fight, the consequences of which will affect us all. So for a bit of time over this holiday season it would be good for us to contemplate the willing dedication and sacrifice of these men and women. And appreciate them.