Christmas away from home and far from the people you love most can be a drag, but that absence and longing you may feel this week has been endured by those who came before you in the services.
In that spirit, here are some memorable stories from troops about the holidays they spent away from home in service to the country.
Here’s hoping you’re reading this while surrounded by those you love. If not, we hope these stories help you pass the time and reinforce that you are not alone even if you’re far from home.
Also, don’t forget to FaceTime your mom when you get a chance, she just wants to see your face.
A Baghdad surprise
Darrin Gibbs was deployed to Kuwait in 2006 and 2007. His mother, Joanne Gibbs, was across the border in Baghdad, working as a civilian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I had the pleasure of surprising her during a televised interview on CNN” that aired on Christmas Day, 2006, he told Military Times. “It was a joyous moment, and one that I will forever cherish.”
“This is why you didn’t’ answer my email!” Joanne Gibbs, said, laughing, as she hugged her boy.
Gratitude and a Korean orphan
Larry Flowers was an Army captain when he found himself in Korea for Christmas in 1966. Far from his wife and kids, he felt nothing close to the holiday spirit as Dec. 25 approached.
“There are times in the military that you catch yourself asking, what the hell am I doing here?” Flowers recalled to Military Times.
Some junior officers approached him about helping with a Christmas party the unit was throwing for a local Korean orphanage, but Flowers told them he had no desire to take part.
“Christmas day broke bright and early, very sunny and bitterly cold,” he said.
Flowers was getting ready to write a letter to his family when his friends came to his room.
“Put on your Class A’s and you’re coming with us, otherwise we will carry you,” Flowers remembered his friends saying. They arrived at the orphanage and Flowers was paired off with an orphaned toddler.
“I described the weather as horribly cold and her little face and hands proved just how bitter it was,” he recalled. “Her face, but especially her cheeks and hands, were chafed and cracked, and her nose was running like a faucet. All I could think of at that moment was, ‘and you felt sorry for yourself.’”
The child held up her arms, and Flowers picked her up. He gave her his handkerchief and she blew her nose as hard as she could before handing it back with a smile. He held her and waited in line to see Santa and get a present, along with 40 or so other orphans and GIs.
“My Korean language skills were very limited at that time, but somehow my little charge and I were able to communicate without words,” he said.
The Santa line was slow, and the girl started to squirm and sob a bit, but the child was the last to sit on Santa’s lap, and Flowers recalled relief and joy flooding him when she got her turn.
“For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I felt like a proud papa of a child that had just won an Olympic medal, but nonetheless, I was proud and grinned from ear to ear as Santa talked to her,” he said. “The Christmas spirit had entered me.”
The girl opened her gift and lit up at the sight of a new doll, Flowers said.
“My little girl wanted her wrapping paper folded and put into the box that her doll came in,” he added.
They mingled a bit longer and then loaded the kids back onto an Army bus to return them to the orphanage. Flowers waved goodbye to the child and she waved back.
“It was a wonderful Christmas Day after all,” he said. “That little girl would now be about 52 years of age. I often wonder if she remembers that day and how happy she made me feel.”
A two-star cares in Vietnam
In 1971, Paul Lundquist was a 19-year-old private first class working on Christmas Day in Vietnam.
“I was pulling guard duty on the wharves and piers of Cam Ranh Bay,” he told Military Times. “We were on a 24-hour duty, so no chance to enjoy a mess hall meal or other trappings of the holiday.”
It was about 9 p.m. when a jeep and a three-quarter-ton truck approached Lundquist’s guard position.
“After challenging, as I was trained, to determine everything was okay, a 2-star general I didn’t know or had even heard about got out of the jeep with two special services women dressed in their civilian finery to wish me a merry Christmas,” Lundquist said.
“After hand shaking (no saluting in the open), and hugs and wishes from everyone, more troops got out of the 3/4 truck and started pulling out marmite cans of hot chow,” he said. “The food was delicious, the coffee was hot, and I’ll admit it did jerk a tear of appreciation that a 2-star and company were going around to every guard post on Cam Ranh Bay to do the same.”
“It must have taken hours for them to finish, which meant they gave up most of their Christmas to show appreciation for us. I have many other holiday stories, but this one is my best and one I will never forget.”
His platoon sergeant also gave him a present that day: the rank of E-4.
He’ll stand the watch
Paul Rutherford was a junior Navy officer and assistant department head at the Naval Post Graduate School as Christmas neared in 1982.
He was slated to separate the next month, so when he heard the superintendent’s chief of staff lamenting about who would get stuck with duty over the holidays, Rutherford said he stepped up.
“I knocked on his door and said, ‘Hey CAP, I have a solution to your watch dilemma,’” Rutherford recalled. “Just give me the series of watches so none of my shipmates have to stand watch. He told me in no uncertain terms how much he appreciated that. It’s better to give than to receive. I walked out of his office with a mighty big smile.”
Strap in, LT!
On Christmas Day of 1972, in Vietnam, Terry Johnson was a first lieutenant serving as a Huey helicopter pilot. That day, the officers in the 57th Assault Helicopter Company opted to relieve the warrant officers and enlisted soldiers from the day’s flight missions, he said.
He helped ferry around a promotable colonel and his lieutenant aide as they flew to various fire bases for Christmas visits.
“I served as the right door gunner on a Huey that day,” Johnson recalled.
The aide lieutenant sat to Johnson’s right.
“He didn’t fasten his seat belt and I tapped him, yelling for him to do that,” Johnson said. “I had an unmarked field jacket and my visor down so he didn’t realize I was an officer. I slapped him again and he turned scowling at me but finally fastened his belt,” he said. “We took off and I slapped him on the shoulder even harder. He turned with fire in his eyes! I raised my visor and shouted, ‘Merry Christmas, Bobby!’”
“He was one of my West Point classmates,” Johnson said. “Boy, it was a good thing that he was strapped in!”
Holiday chow on the Iraqi border
Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Jerome Baker was deployed to Iraq for Thanksgiving 2004. Assigned to the 1058th Gun Truck Detachment under the 1st Infantry Division, Baker and the other airmen ran security for supply convoys heading south from the Iraq-Turkey border, based out of a town they called Harbor Gate.
This was an early point in the war, when up-armored vehicles had not yet become ubiquitous, and the threat from improvised explosive devices was increasing.
Baker told Military Times that his team would sometimes escort convoys from the border all the way down to Baghdad. Still, someone was looking out for them on Thanksgiving Day.
“The people who were running the supply side of the operation made sure that we had a Thanksgiving dinner,” Baker recalled. “At that time, we had like three different convoys in town. The Army helicoptered in (from LSA Diamondback) enough food for everyone. Even though we were nowhere near a FOB, they made sure we had a special meal.”
Keep that cold weather gear handy
Dan Hop was fresh out of Army training when he arrived at his Germany-based mechanized infantry unit a few days before deploying in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990.
They flew out on Christmas Eve and landed in Saudi Arabia just after midnight on Christmas morning, he recalled.
“Buses were not there as scheduled, so we had to sit on the tarmac for several hours,” he said. “Being a private and not knowing any better, I thought it would be warm in the desert, so I had packed my parka and other cold weather gear in my duffel bag which was palletized and inaccessible.”
He added, “Most others had their cold weather gear on them. Shivering, I placed my hand on the asphalt of the runway and realized it was still warm from the sun the day before. So, I did the only thing I could: laid face down on the asphalt just to stay warm. Thus, was my first Christmas away from home!”
Remember how far you’ve come
Justin Bock was 22 and had been in the Navy for less than six months when he found himself deployed aboard the amphibious assault ship Boxer in Asia for Christmas Eve in 1998.
“At that point, it was a super lonely experience,” he recalled. “We were in our third week of my first deployment. I had just gotten off mid-watch and decided to go to the gym. It was empty. As I was working out, a Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton Christmas song came over the speakers. It was a song my mom would play every year as a child as we put up our Christmas tree. I was alone and missing everything and everyone I knew.”
On Christmas morning, the amphib passed by the island of Iwo Jima, and Bock’s perspective changed.
“What a gift,” he said. “It was the first land I’d seen. The history and distance of that soil reminded me of how far I’d come from Rockford, Illinois. I’ve never had another Christmas like my first in the Navy.”
A very Camp Cedar II Christmas
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Blackwood lived on the roads of Iraq in 2004. Based out of Camp Cedar II, his company was rarely together at one time because each platoon was constantly delivering fuel or returning to Cedar II before heading back out on the treacherous roads.
But on Christmas, Blackwood and his soldiers got a break.
“Had gifts from home to open and shared a holiday meal with my soldier, whom I had spent many hours and miles eating dust with on [Main Supply Route] Tampa,” he recalled. “Drive it like you stole it!”
Sing the carol, pass the bottle
Retired Master Chief Machinist’s Mate Jim McCutcheon found himself in Holy Loch, Scotland, for Christmas Eve, 1979.
The boomer sub Ulysses S. Grant was in refit and McCutcheon and his buddies went out for a meal in the small town of Dunoon.
After fish, chips and Tennent’s Lager, the guys stood at a cab stand at a church’s steps, waiting to go back to the launch, when one of them started singing Christmas carols.
“Before the night was over, there had to be 20 people singing on those steps, sailors and locals,” he recalled. “Someone started passing around bottles of Famous Grouse scotch. The cops finally broke it up around one in the morning. Even though I wasn’t at home, that night is a very fond Christmas memory.”
Presents in the desert
Retired Navy Capt. Harry Deloach was a prior-enlisted lieutenant in Sigonella, Italy, in 1993. A C-9 Skytrain aircraft was loaded from front to back with presents that needed to get to the United Arab Emirates and then passed on to several ships, he recalled. The C-9 was dealing with a malfunction. Deloach said he consulted with some maintenance buddies back home and the crew was able to troubleshoot the issue.
“It was late in the crew day, but the crew wanted to get the packages there as bad as the ships’ crew wanted them,” he said.
Deloach said he had been a C-9 crew member when he was enlisted, so he hopped aboard for the ride.
The crew day would expire when they touched down in the desert, but Deloach said everyone was fine spending the night in UAE, if it meant the sailors on the ships could get their presents.
“When we got to the runway in the desert, late in the day on Christmas Eve … there was a helicopter from each ship sitting there, six to seven, with rotor blades turning,” he recalled. “Waiting on Christmas cheer for their shipmates. What a beautiful memory.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.