Our Army at War
Silent Night Patrol
“Silent Night” is one of the world’s most well-known Christmas carols. But it takes on new meaning when seen through the eyes of an American soldier on patrol one Christmas Eve.
I listen, but all I hear is the silence of my brothers. It’s funny how easy it is to think of these guys as my brothers. We have so few things in common — the uniform we wear, our vow to defend the Constitution, our commitment to keep America free, the color of the blood that we are willing to shed to accomplish these goals — these are the things that bind us closer than a number of families I know.
Jacobs is the new guy, our little brother; he’s nervous. For the past twenty minutes, he’s done nothing but stare into the mountain-filled darkness and thumb the safety on his rifle. Yeah, it’s annoying, but we’ve all been there.
Sanchez has been here for almost nine months — this time. His first three trips weren’t much different than his current tour of duty, with one exception; this time, he’s a bonafide U.S. citizen. His lips are moving, although he makes no sound. He is singing our national anthem.
The others — Andrews, McGuire, Dyess — are all watching and listening, waiting for something to happen.
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about Hillbilly. How he can manage to sleep at a time like this is beyond me. He’s snoring softly now, but you can bet when it all hits the fan, he’ll be wide awake and one of the first to start laying down fire.
It’s almost too quiet.
There’s not much that is holy about war. Despite our enemy’s claim that this is a holy war, it is nothing more than an assault on civilization, because they are jealous of our freedom. In the midst of such bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine God being on anyone’s side. Still, He isn’t too far away. Few of us want to pal around with a chaplain, despite his inside pull, but once the mortars start falling like hail, he can become a very popular fellow.
You’d be surprised at how many guys decide to give God a try, especially after a battle, or even right before, come to think about it. I’ve watched chaplains drag out a makeshift bathtub and baptize soldiers so that they would be all right with the Man Upstairs in case something happened to them. When they went home, a fair number them seemed to forget God, content to leave Him here in the mountains — almost like they were keeping Him here in case they were sent back.
A few did take Him home with them, and vice versa.
All is calm.
It’s like the calm before the storm. You can feel the tension in the air. To a man, it’s like we’re on pins and needles. Well, with the exception of Hillbilly — snoozing away.
I feel my own pulse, and it’s like my heart is running a marathon. Of all the combat fatalities, I wonder — how many can be attributed to heart failure just prior to a battle? Despite the chill in the air, a bead of sweat is snaking its way down the side of my face.
All is bright.
Realistically, none of us are certain we even have a future. But we hope, we dream, of one that is bright. We wake up every day and dress for war, all the while hoping for peace.
A bright future of peace. You’d be surprised at how many people truly want that. Most of the people in these mountains want that for themselves, for their children. That’s why we are here, or, at least, one of the reasons. If we can rid the world of those who are content with nothing less than the slaughter of innocents, then these people can have the peace they want. If we could just get them to fight for it as well.
Imagine a future where our children, or our children’s children, have to ask, “What is war?” And we could honestly tell them it’s nothing they need to worry about.
Round yon virgin.
It’s funny the thoughts that pop into your head at a time like this. Jacobs, with his constant worrying of his rifle’s safety; he’s the closest thing to a virgin we’ve got. He’s never been in battle, and until he hit basic training, he probably never even fired a gun. Still, he’s a smart kid. No, let me change that, Jacobs is a wise kid. He has listened to the men and women who’ve walked a mile in his boots and done his best to absorb everything they’ve had to teach him. It’s a shame he has to lose his “virginity” like this.
I guess it goes back to that bright future — perhaps one day we won’t have to worry about our sons and daughters being forced to become men and women this way.
Mother and child.
I miss Mom. I miss my wife and children. I miss Dad. Aunts, uncles, cousins, I miss them all. I can picture my son when he was just learning to walk, standing in my boots. His face was a mask of frustration, because he couldn’t make them move. You couldn’t help but laugh at him; those unsteady legs of his were so short that the tops of my boots were up past his knees. When we laughed, he would look up and laugh with us. Finally, my wife would take the boots gently in her hands, and with him holding tightly to her arms, move the boots back and forth until he was “walking.” My daughter, who is a couple years older, wants her turn. We spent the evening playing with our kids like this.
I’ll be an awfully proud father if they decide to follow in my footsteps, but I pray to God that they never do.
I remember when my daughter was born. I guess it was the light from the base hospital’s overhead lights, but when I first held her, she had a glow about her. You’ve seen the paintings from the old master, how they always painted baby Jesus, whether in the manager, or in Mary’s arms, surrounded by a glowing halo. I swear, when I first held her, she had that same glow.
There was no wrong in her. She was completely pure. I don’t believe that we are ever that holy in our lives as we were at the moment of our birth.
So tender and mild.
I remember my wife’s right hand when we got the orders to ship out. She cried — we both did — when we got the news, but with her right hand, she touched my cheek. Even now, as the night wind blows across our position, I can feel the touch of her right hand on my cheek.
My children held my hands as we walked to the hangar on the day I left. I had to walk bent over, and with my gear it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. My son kept repeating the phrase, “Dah go bye,” over and over as we walked, while my daughter held my hand so tight her knuckles were white. When it came time to go, I held my wife and my kids, and we cried. There was no shame in our tears; I’ve learned that real men do cry. My son saw my tears and touched my face. “Dah go home,” he said.
One day, Lord willing.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
I close my eyes, just for a moment, and I discover that it is peaceful. My ear are still alert, but, somehow, by closing my eyes to the darkness and what it could hold, my heart finds a little peace.
I see my family, all of them, gathered around the Christmas tree. I can hear their laughter, and when they think of me here, I can hear their sorrow. I send them my thoughts, my love, my prayers, and they are smiling again. I smile, too, because I know they are sending theirs to me.
Now I know how Hillbilly finds it so easy to sleep. Home is in our dreams, and he returns there every chance he gets.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
I open my eyes when I hear McGuire talking on the radio. We all gather round, even Hillbilly — see, wide awake, just like I said.
It’s H.Q. They tell us that our eyes in the sky are picking up no heat signatures but ours. We give them our coordinates, just to be sure, and they confirm. They order us back to base.
As we start back, Sanchez’s lips are still moving, but his words aren’t silent now. By the time we reach the base, we’ve all joined in. The guards at the gate laugh.
“It’s Christmas, guys,” one says. “Why don’t you sing Silent Night?”
We stop and look at each other, my brothers and me, and we laugh. We’ve had our silent night, but standing here, looking up at the flag and all it stands for, the anthem makes a pretty good Christmas carol.