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In Afghanistan, a hard holiday season for U.S. troops

4:50 PM, Dec 23, 2012   |    comments
U.S. specialist Charlie Labonte from Apache Troop 1-75 Cavalry 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne Division, seen wearing a Santa hat, walks past tents at Sabloghay camp in Zari district of Kandahar province on Saturday.(Photo: Behrouz Mehri, AFP/Getty Images)
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Carmen Gentile, Special USA TODAY

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Ghazni province, Afghanistan -- Here in the cold Taliban-infested areas of eastern Afghanistan, First Sgt. Alan Robison is missing Christmas with his wife and children for the fourth time because of his deployments.

"I'm really big on Christmas, so when I'm home my family really goes all out with the tree and lights on the house," he says. "When I'm not there, they don't do as much decorating."

He and his men manage to muster some holiday cheer despite the distance from home. In between patrols in this hotbed of Taliban activity he and his fellow troops decorated a tree.

This year is the 12th holiday season that U.S. servicemembers are in Afghanistan, and it is the time of year that troops can miss their families the most. But Christmas in Afghanistan is in some ways better for troops than it was in previous wars.

The big difference is contact with loved ones.

In World War I, there were not direct telephone communications between Europe and America, and paper and ink were rare commodities in the trenches. Commercial radio in the USA was taken over by the government. Independent news from the European front came from newspapers, which could be censored.

In World War II and Korea, the military made a serious effort to get troops packages and letters during holidays. But the mail could take weeks to catch up to fast-moving troops whose locations were often a mystery even to generals who relied on spotter planes in good weather and radio transmissions to keep track of units.

Vietnam, a war that utilized more permanent bases, made use of reel-to-reel tapes sent through the mail so soldiers could hear messages from home on recorders. Overseas phone service was available by then but so expensive that it was made available only for emergencies.

None of this compares with the communications available to troops today. Deregulation of the telecommunications industry and the advent of the Internet has been followed by an explosion in communication methods.

Many troops have access to laptop computers or mobile devices like smartphones linked to Internet-based satellite communications, and can communicate instantly back home even while hunkered down in villages that have yet to get indoor plumbing.

But troops here say the ability to use Internet services like Skype, where they see their families as they talk to them, is not always the greatest thing in the world.

Spc. Anthony Reed says he will try to catch a glimpse of his 3-year-old daughter, Trinity, on Skype, but it will remind him that he will missing the day with her.

"It's hard being away from her, really hard," he says. "She knows where I'm at, but she doesn't understand why yet."

The holidays are a particularly trying time for soldiers with spouses and children back home, says Capt. Ray Davidson, the chaplain at Arian. He says he has spoken to a number of soldiers about their longing to be home this time of year.

"When we're here we try to put the family aside and not dwell on being away from them," Davidson says. "And then Christmas comes."

He admits he also struggles with his own Christmas blues, having to remind himself that chaplains "are supposed to be the backbone" supporting soldiers longing for home.

Davidson says he hopes to bolster soldiers' spirits come Christmas Day by traveling to all the nearby bases to conduct Christmas Mass and hand out presents sent from military supporters back home.

James Burris, a civilian contractor who during his prior military service missed Christmas four times, says he'll try to call home, but can't be sure he'll even be anywhere near an Internet connection on the 25th.

"I'll try, but I might be outside the wire (away from a military base) working," he says, noting his work on military vehicles has an unpredictable schedule.

His four children, ages 11 to 22, would surely enjoy hearing his voice on Christmas, but know they can't count on it.

"They don't like me being gone all the time, but they understand," he says.

Christmas during the Afghanistan War is also different in that unlike other wars, there is a lot less fighting here in winter to keep your mind occupied on your job rather than on what you are missing back home. Here the fighting typically slows down because many Pakistani Taliban return home and do not return until the spring.

"When the cold weather arrives, the mission slows down and there's more time on your hands, more time to think about being here instead of home," Davidson says.

However, there is still fighting here and the 66,000 troops still in Afghanistan do battle with a persistent enemy: maintaining their focus.

"I tell my soldiers to stay focused, keep yourself and your battle buddy alive," Robison says. "A little sadness now (at missing Christmas back home) can prevent a lot of sadness later."

A break for entertainment

Cheering troops with entertainment has always been part of the Christmas calendar in war zones overseas.

The USO averages about 80 entertainment tours a year, which includes both combat zones and bases in Europe, the Pacific and elsewhere. About 300,000 troops see the entertainers over the course of a year.

It is difficult to fly entertainers around Afghanistan so the shows are generally smaller, says John Pray, USO chief of staff. During World War II, military installations were more developed and they could have larger shows.

They now do a lot of "handshake tours," where various celebrities meet with troops, and have fewer large variety shows.

It differs from the past. In World War II there was more of a shared experience in entertainment.

For example, everyone knew who Bob Hope was and his appeal was widespread among the military. Hope was among 7,000 performers who played the USO "foxhole circuit" during World War II, far more than the number of performers that visit the troops today.

Yet the spectrum of entertainment offerings that exist today varies widely as does the entertainment tastes among troops. The USO sponsors a number of entertainers overseas, including sports figures, reality television stars, celebrity chefs and other names.

"We have a very diverse military and so we try to match that," Pray said.

A USO "Holiday Tour" this month included Washington Capitals' Matt Hendricks, Washington Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, country music singer Kellie Pickler and comedian and host of CBS' Excused Iliza Shlesinger.

Still, the simpler moments are often more special to troops.

Spc. Paige Booth and her fellow military police soldiers from a National Guard Unit in West Hartford, Conn., sit around a roaring campfire one night munching on Christmas candy they received in care packages.

In the flickering glow of flames, Booth works on knitting a scarf for herself and says spending the holiday in Afghanistan isn't all that bad considering the company she keeps.

"I'm with my second family, so it's OK," she says, a show of emotion that prompts ribbing from her fellow MPs.

"You know what I miss during Christmas over here?" asks Spc. Stephanie Landry. "I miss football and beer."

A select few soldiers are fortunate enough to have their military spouse deployed to the same base as them.

Spc. Amanda Ortiz and her husband, PFC Bryant Ortiz, share a room at Forward Operating Base Warrior and plan to exchange gifts come the big day. She got Bryant -- who was away for a week before Christmas on a long mission -- a new knife. He got her the watch she really wanted to help her train for an upcoming marathon.

"Being together during deployment helps a lot," she says, though, laughing, admits "some people get a little jealous."

Pfc. Brian Schwenk says he'll miss spending Christmas with his parents, Cheryl and Scott, in Reading, Pa., and his brother David, a specialist in the Army currently deployed to the Middle East.

"Getting me and my brother back home for Christmas would be the best present," he says smiling, knowing he won't be home until his unit, the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Division out of Fort Riley, redeploys early next year.

As for this Christmas he says there is something special planned for the soldiers at Combat Outpost Muqor in Ghazni Province, though exactly what remains a mystery.

"Whatever it is will be overshadowed by the wait to get home," he says during a snowball fight with fellow soldiers.

Scott Schwenk, father of Brian and David who lives in West Lawn, Pa., says most of the extended Schwenk family lives within 25 miles of his home.

"It's rare that anyone misses Christmas, Thanksgiving or going to church on holidays," he said.

Hearing reports of unnamed casualties is especially stressful, he says. The family waits to hear from Brian via Facebook or cellphone so they know he is OK.

"Until we see a face or hear a voice you always think the worst," says Schwenk, who misses not going out with "my big hunting buddy."

'Forgotten war'

Schwenk laments that many Americans don't think much at this season about the thousands of troops spending Christmas fighting for their country.

"It's almost like Vietnam, the forgotten war," Schwenk says of Afghanistan. "It's upsetting. There are guys are over there doing a job for kind of meager pay. It's a tough existence. It's like people have forgotten about them, other than families and friends."

Charities and communities are doing a lot as they have in past wars to cheer troops up with gifts, cards and visits. But this war is different in that it comes at a time when fewer Americans have a personal connection to the military.

A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that a smaller share of Americans serve in the U.S. military than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II.

"During the past decade ... just one-half of 1% of American adults has served on active duty at any given time," it said. "The connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant."

Being in a Muslim country has not stopped some troops overseas from sharing the Christmas spirit with locals who are not of the Christian faith.

Maj. Michael Conway says he and his fellow advisers to the Afghan army will invite their local compatriots to join them for Christmas dinner.

"They know it's an important holiday for us and we want to share it with them," he says.

Though Conway is missing Christmas with his wife and three children, ages 3 to 14, he says that "with a little Christmas music, a little holiday spirit, it's not so bad."

Contributing: Jim Michaels from Washington, D.C.

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