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The Good Old Days – Christmas on Deployment

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December 1, 2023
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To those not accustomed to military service and the unique sort of adventure that lifestyle provides, there are stories of bad holidays, but the scale rarely seems to match the outright ridiculousness of Christmas in Kandahar (or deployed to any combat zone, I just liked the alliteration.) The nature of these times is that of a coin; it blew chunks to go through it at the time, but looking back on the story was worth the suffering.

In that spirit, I offer some more or less true stories from holiday deployments past. The names have been removed to protect me from getting disapproving looks from my editor.

American Components, Russian Components, All Made in Taiwan

A single squad sat stationed on a cliffside combat position in a contested area of Afghanistan. Calling it a combat position was generous, as it was one post of Hesco at the cliff, a few Hesco rows to sleep between, and two MATV vehicles. The squad was, at that time, the only members of the battalion that were out in the battlespace, while the remainder were still at Camp Leatherneck forward operating base, so communication was spotty at best. 

This is why it came as a surprise when, after several weeks of extensions at this position before resupply, a convoy came through the desert towards them. Comms were established, and goods were received. Among the drop were letters from home, UGRE rations which were a nice change from MREs, and a special gift; the use of an Iridium phone for 24 hours.

For those unfamiliar with Iridium phones, they are essentially a satellite phone that allows you to call any number on the planet… Provided it was fully charged, there was a clear view of the sky, Mercury was in Gatorade, Odin’s ravens were given five days’ notice… 

Don’t misunderstand, the squad was thrilled. A chance to call home was an unexpected pleasure, so even a small portion would work magic. But the technology wasn’t known to be reliable, especially given the condition of a cell phone thousands of dirty teenagers used to be on.

Another major issue with Iridium phone signal was sandstorms. Which of course is the reason that a sandstorm appeared on the horizon just as the phone call attempts began. For the next several hours, Marines spent the sandstorm getting sand blasted in the artificial dusk while contorting in positions that ballet dancers would have admired to appease the signal gods. Many charging breaks later, the squad leader finally gets his opportunity, though night had fallen and the storm had not. Willing to brave the elements, the squad leader climbed on top of the post, the highest position in the area. 

Pulling out the magical device, he noticed one new feature; the antenna was broken. Physically split down the middle. This resulted in the squad leader standing the only way he could; holding the antenna in one hand, the phone in the other, being pelted in the face with the contents of the Upper Geresk Valley, doing what can only charitably called a failed attempt at a rain dance. After depleting a large portion of the battery, and dancing in a sand blaster for Mattis knows how long, the call finally connected. 

Him: “Hey, hon! How’s it going?”

Her: “Hey baby! I miss you, how are you?”

Him, having skin removed by the devil: “Eh, it's okay. What are you up to?”

Her: “Just got a new set of matching underwear, guess what color they are?”

**then the phone dies**

Freshly blessed with two blue Christmas ornaments, the squad leader was informed it was time for patrol. Merry Christmas indeed.

A Marine on Duty Has No Friends

Several years ago, a young Lance Corporal stood in a box made of plywood and sandbags staring out at the sunbaked landscape. The empty, devoid of activity, one bush that occasionally blows in the wind but even a dog couldn’t hide behind its sun baked landscape. It was around Christmas, but he couldn’t remember what day today was, so did that matter? The boredom was mildly offset by annoyance at the chill wind from the desert, giving him wind burn. This was hour one of six, following this morning’s combat patrol and proceeding another after dinner. All the songs he could presently remember got a whistle or two, before he began replaying old conversations in his head, (with his own responses tweaked to be wittier, of course.)

Hour three arrived with some excitement for once, as the Battalion Chaplain and some support staff had brought a mounted patrol to the battle position. Hot rations, mail from a month and a half ago, and care packages that were sincerely S-Teir all followed, bringing exactly the sort of morale boost troops prefer; the snack and contact with people who you can’t smell right now variety. Lance Corporal remained on post, however, as a Marine on duty has no friends, or need of snacks, or that one letter from his girlfriend that always smelled a little like her. It could wait.

Burble… But this couldn’t. Meals Ready to Eat aren’t always expired, and they don’t always treat your stomach like a hillbilly water park, but this day they must have been both. Lance Corporal called for the Sergeant of the Guard to relieve him… No answer. 

Apparently, everyone was otherwise entertained. He tried yelling to the nearest Marine, but he was too close to the generator and his calls were drowned out by the sputtering of an unreliable diesel motor from the 1980’s. Somehow he could still hear the bubbles inside his guts, rapidly approaching critical mass. 

With one final failed attempt on the field phone, Lance Corporal made a decision… And fired a pen flare. Now, pen flares are small, hence the name, but the sudden launching of one will definitely get the SOG’s attention during a Chaplain’s visit. SOG put all of his gear on, not just what he normally would if half of the battalion staff weren’t watching and ran to support the post. 

SOG was making quick time up the ladder, but the Lance Corporal didn’t wait for the climb to be complete before yelling “my Christmas gift from you is not sh*tting my pants, thank you!” and leapt from the post. Hitting the ground running, he shed his kit just in time to make the newly built field toilet. It may not have been a Christmas miracle to make it in time (the Corpsman who had to stir and burn it thought it a divine punishment), but not being punished for the pen flare certainly was. The decision was made to overlook the incident… For morale reasons. To this day, even as a civilian, the squad leader keeps a wag bag (a chemical toilet) nearby.

If you enjoyed this dose of nostalgia, call up your buddies and talk about your own stories. Reach out to someone from your old unit and give them the best present they could ask for. Remind them when something bad happened to that one person they didn’t like.

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