[Nick Pease is a student at Anderson University and is currently serving in Afghanistan.]
I can't deny it, I won't deny it and you can't change my mind: I love Christmas.
I'm a fan of holidays in general — most mean either presents, great food or knocking on strangers' doors for candy — all good things in my book. But, wow, do I love Christmas!
From Christmas lights and decorations in the yard, to the stories of Santa, Rudolph and Frosty, to watching “The Christmas Story” repeatedly — I love it. And don't forget crazy shopping at Wal-Mart on Dec. 23 — I love it all.
Throw in getting presents (admit it, it's your favorite part, too), Christmas music, peppermint mochas from Starbucks (I'm addicted) and a nice snow blanketing the ground, and Christmas is hands down the best holiday ever. And this doesn't even mention the real reason for the season, as we like to say.
Unfortunately, I'll miss out on all these great things and more this year.
I and fellow members of the U.S. Army Reserve's 221st Ordnance Co., based in Fort Wayne, will be spending Christmas in Afghanistan or Kuwait, serving America in her time of need. Like so many before us, we are making one of the most difficult sacrifices a soldier can make — being away from home during the holidays.
Season of gifts
Perhaps my family is one reason why I love Christmas. Every year, my mother decorates the house to an unbelievable extent. There is a Nativity scene, angel or elf covering every square inch. I can't use the bathroom without seeing Christmas towels and being asked if I have been naughty or nice. And her Christmas village … oh, my … the elaborate scheme of buildings, roads, townspeople and fake snow is a thing of beauty.
Of course, she is also the master of gift giving — no matter what it is I wanted each year, she made sure I had it. From a bike, to GI Joes, to a Playstation 2, she delivered. My dad has also been awesome when it comes to buying presents for me and my siblings.
And then there is my aunt. Every year we still get a Christmas stocking at her house full of things like deodorant, soap, toothpaste, socks — you know, all the things you need, but don't want to open on Christmas Day.
Hard on the families
A deployment wears on everyone involved — both the soldier and the families back home. And perhaps no time is harder than the time right now.
“It's miserable,” said Sgt. Zane Unverzagt, a 221st Ordnance Co. member from Columbia City. Unverzagt was also deployed with the unit in 2004-2005, and he knows what it's like to be away from home at the holidays.
“The holidays are important, and missing one is enough,” he said, “But missing two is even worse. It's just miserable.”
Back home, Unverzagt has plenty of loved ones awaiting his return. Among them are four children, (two of his own and two soon-to-be stepchildren) ranging from ages 2 to 7, and also his fiancee, Jenna. After the deployment forced a serious look at their engagement, the two will wed in August.
“My children are supportive as children can be,” Unverzagt said. “They understand me being gone, and they know when I'm home we'll have a real Christmas together.”
Dad in Afghanistan
Sgt. 1st Class Eric Smith also knows what it's like to be away from home during the holidays. He spent time on active duty before joining the 221st and also served in Afghanistan during the unit's last deployment. But for Smith, who is stationed in Salerno, Afghanistan, it's hard no matter what time of year it is.
“I think the hardest part about being away from home is not seeing my four children grow up,” Smith said. “I missed my youngest's first birthday, his first step and so on and so on. And it's really hard on the kids. They really don't know what to make of the deployment. All they want is for me to come home.”
It's even more difficult when the holidays roll around.
“Being away from my loved ones is hard, but it's even harder now … I can't help but think of all the love and thankfulness that the holidays bring,” he said.
Wife is his ‘hero'
As difficult and painful as it is to be away from his wife and four children, the experience makes Smith realize how thankful he is for his loving family.
“I am most thankful for my family, especially my wife; she has been my biggest supporter!” Smith said. “I don't know where I would be without her. She always makes me feel loved, and she's always been there for me.
“I think she and many women like her have the hardest jobs there are!,” Smith added. “She has to be the mom and dad in my absence. She has to take care of everything until I am home. My job is somewhat easy compared to hers.”
He concluded with a statement few in uniform would argue with:
“She and women like her are my heroes — the families are the ones that make the ultimate sacrifice.”
Soldiers are family
While being away from home for the holidays isn't fun, there is a bit of consolation for soldiers.
A deployment creates bonds rarely seen by those who have not experienced it. Soldiers live with each other day in and day out — they work, eat and sleep together, and see each other at their best and worst. It's nearly impossible to not form a family-like bond.
“My soldiers are my family,” Smith said. “We argue and we laugh just like most families do, then we have a big group hug when it's all said and done. It kind of lets you know that you are not alone in Afghanistan.”
“I think we have it easy,” he said. “There are 30 other guys right here going through the same thing that I am, and having those people here who understand, it makes the holidays a lot easier.”
—Nick Pease wrote this column for the News-Sentinel in Ft. Wayne, Ind.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,750 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.