It was Christmas night, 1990. The gifts had been exchanged and the turkey devoured. I remember sitting on my couch, enjoying a final nightcap when the telephone rang. That’s odd, I thought. It’s kind of late for someone to be calling. I picked it up.
“Hello Stevie-boy.” The raspy voice was unmistakable; it belonged to Pat Ruggierio, my platoon sergeant.
“What’s up, Pat?”
“I’ve got good news and bad news, Steve. Which do you want first?”
“Too much holiday cheer, big boy?” I asked him.
Pat laughed. “Okay, the good news is that you’ve been promoted to sergeant, effective tomorrow. The bad news is that I just got the call, Steve. We’ve been activated for Operation Desert Shield…for one year. I need you to contact your people and make sure they report to the armory on Monday morning, 0700 hours.”
I laughed. “Cut the crap, Pat.”
“I wish it was a joke, buddy, but this one’s for real.”
I now knew Pat wasn’t kidding, but the reality of it was just too large to grasp. “Okay, Pat,” I told him, “I’ll make the calls.”
“Oh Steve, by the way…Merry Christmas.” The line went dead and, along with it, any sense of peace I would know for years.
I remember hanging up the phone and standing there—in shock—for the longest time. Staring out of the frost covered window, I felt a shiver travel the length of my spine. It wasn’t due to the cold wind beating off the glass, but from the pictures of war already running through my mind.
Although I never served on Christmas, I did end up serving in Iraq during the first Gulf War. The entire experience—from Pat’s fateful phone call to the countless hours of post-war counseling—was brutal. Besides learning that the price for freedom is a heavy one, indeed, I also gained an incredible appreciation for the peace and joy that normally embraces the Christmas season.
This year, as I do every year, I will say a quiet prayer for the men and women who can’t be home with their families; for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who are serving somewhere across the globe, in harm’s way, so you and I can have that final nightcap in peace.
Steven Manchester is the author of three #1 bestsellers. His most recent title, critically acclaimed Gooseberry Island, is available now. His latest, The Changing Season, arrives Spring 2016. Please visit his website for more.