Holidays: Family, Cheer, Fellowship, Food

Written by guest blogger Walter Mathis, an Army veteran who did three tours in Afghanistan. He now lives in Colorado after he fell in love with the location while volunteering for a Project Sanctuary retreat.


Holidays: family, cheer, fellowship, food. These are all things we think of, starting in mid-October. To the average American, the meanings of these words are pretty standard, with slight variations. The vast majority of Americans look forward to this time of year to be around relatives (family), enjoy company (fellowship), the season’s vibe (cheer), and large meals, most with specific seasonal traditional fare (food) with loved ones.

When we’re away “over there,” we miss our families and being involved in the traditional events. Well, we say we do; we think we do, because we are supposed to. But, some of the best holidays I’ve had have been away, or “over there.” Taking my children trick-or-treating was always fun. However, the costume party in an old Russian hangar in the mountains of Afghanistan, costumed in whatever our imaginations could muster from our limited resources, all while forgetting for just a few minutes that we were hunted and hated — THAT was a once in a lifetime experience. The point of Halloween is to dress up to scare away the bad things. We dressed up to forget the bad things for just a little bit.

The most heartfelt thanks I have ever heard around a Thanksgiving Day table were the thanks expressed around a table covered in dust, with M16s and M4s carried “hot” slung on every shoulder. We were all expressing thanks that we are even around the table and able to give thanks… expressing thanks that the IED yesterday only incapacitated a vehicle and not the six soldiers inside… expressing thanks for the possibility of a shower and a Port-o-let that had been cleaned within the last week.

Some of the most appreciated Christmas gifts I have ever received were the soft toilet paper, beef jerky, and wonderful-smelling green pea hand sanitizer in a nondescript box from a kindergarten class in Cheyenne, Wyoming (I still have the letter that was in that box). The most Christmas spirit-type generous feelings I ever had was sharing that soft toilet paper, that beef jerky, and that, again wondrous-smelling, green pea hand sanitizer. That sharing felt genuinely good inside while giving back at home always felt a little forced and/or expected. I have smiled more at that random splash of bright red Santa hat in a drab dusty chow hall than any Santa hat back here in the States.

And lastly New Year’s Eve, a milestone for all, the beginning of a new year… For a lot of us, New Year’s marks a milestone in a countdown to be safe back home again, with the people around us sharing that added significance. The countdown and following singing felt more to me because this milestone meant we made it to the next year alive.

I have felt the spirit of the holidays more in desolate places. The giving, the thanks, the camaraderie all felt more genuine. I look back now, knowing I was with family all along.



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