EPHRATA, PA — Five years ago, this annual Christmas column was written while our Fox News “War Stories” team was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division south of Baghdad.
A year earlier, the Christmas 2006 column was written in Ramadi, Iraq, while we were embedded with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in what was then the bloodiest place on the planet. In 2005, this column originated with 3d Battalion, 7th Marines and the 2nd Brigade of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard, in Anbar Province. In the days before Christmas that year, we were able to document the first free elections ever held in an Arab country.
It’s been like that for most of the last 11 years — ever since the horrific terror attacks of 9/11. In the days before celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Peace, we have been able to keep company with America’s heroes.
But this year, after being embedded with U.S. special operators and the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines in Afghanistan, we returned home in time for Thanksgiving. Instead of composing this column in an armored vehicle on the way to a dusty outpost in the shadows of the Hindu Kush, I’m doing so aboard a comfortable Premier motor coach en route to a book signing.
When I’m overseas with our soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines serving in harm’s way, I’m inspired by their extraordinary esprit and demonstrated tenacity in very difficult conditions. Despite their circumstances, the young Americans I have been covering for the last 11 years exhibit an infectious optimism. I’ve concluded that the confidence of our troops in the field is the consequence of their being brighter, better educated and trained, more physically fit and far more committed to a cause they believe in than their civilian peers here at home.
And there is another factor. Though terrible things can happen in war’s inevitable violence — few of the young Americans on forward operating bases and remote combat outposts in Afghanistan are subjected to the near constant deluge of instantly-fed bad news like we are here at home. Life in the war zone isn’t lived on a smartphone.
There is blessedly little day-to-day access to our so-called mainstream media. When we were out there a few weeks ago, copies of the New York Times or the Washington Post weren’t available in Helmand, Paktika, Wardak and Kandahar Provinces.
That doesn’t mean that those who serve in uniform are ignorant — nor are they necessarily uninformed. But when bad news does reach those carrying real assault weapons — it’s at least hours, or sometimes days — after events like last week’s carnage in Connecticut. That’s not the case for their families and loved ones here at home.
Until the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., most of the wives, parents, siblings and offspring of those I have covered in this war have told me about their concern for how our country’s economy, the fiscal cliff, or the Middle East mess or the Benghazi fiasco might affect the future or job prospects for their loved one in uniform. That’s no longer the case.
Now, those Blue Star and Gold Star family members picking up an autographed copy of “Heroes Proved” talk about an apparent cascade of catastrophe affecting our nation. They express shock and horror at what happened. They tell of their sense of grief for the families of those killed, and most say they are praying for the survivors and the community.
Many tell how anxious they are about how the irrational act of a lone, unstable gunman could impact their own family member in our armed forces when he or she comes home. They worry about how it might alter public perceptions about their loved ones in military service — and those who carry weapons to defend us all.
Few of our countrymen really comprehend this uncertainty. Fewer than two percent of us even know the name of someone serving in uniform. That’s why Freedom Alliance, an organization devoted to encouraging, supporting and honoring military service has redoubled its efforts on the “home front” this Christmas season.
In the days ahead, the “Presents for Patriots” project will deliver hundreds of Christmas gifts to the children of service members recovering from the wounds of war. Freedom Alliance president Tom Kilgannon said, “We’ve already packed and shipped thousands of ‘Gifts from Home’ care packages to the troops overseas. It’s equally important to let their families here at home know we recognize the sacrifices they are making.”
Action like this won’t change bad news here at home. But it does serve to let brave Americans wearing flak jackets, helmets, fight suits and combat boots in faraway places — and their families here at home — know we still care. That is after all the spirit of the season.