When Christmas Day finally arrived, the division headquarters sent cases of hardboiled eggs and eggnog to our battalion. Our glee at these unexpected delicacies was almost childlike. Even so far away from home, Christmas again seemed quite real. A few of us were even prepared to successfully debate the existence of Santa Claus.
As the day went on, some of us sang along with the Christmas carols beaming over AFVN. Others broke out pictures of their families or loved ones and talked about home. Nearly all of us ate eggs and drank eggnog until we were sick.
As was customary, a holiday truce had been called between warring factions. Although neither side was known to be meticulous about honoring such truces, each of us shared a slight sense of relief in believing that we weren’t at risk for at least one special day.
Amidst our joy, however, and unbeknownst to us, the enemy was amassing thousands of troops for an attack on our base and the small company outposts on the outlying hills. Even as we sang, talked, and drank eggnog, North Vietnamese scouts were peering down at us from the looming hills to the north and planning their strategy for attack. Within less than a month, the biggest battle of the Vietnam war commenced — the siege of Khe Sanh, our small mountain base.
For many servicemen at Khe Sanh, that Christmas was their last. It was also the last for thousands of North Vietnamese troops who, like us, were away from home serving their country.
Today, 46 years after that Christmas and as if it happened only yesterday, I can still see the smiling faces of my Marine friends, hear the holiday music of AFVN, and taste the eggnog.
This small story of mine can be echoed a thousand times over by other veterans who have served through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a hundred other places where men and women stood in harm’s way in service of their country. The particular place, time, faces, and events may be different, but the memories and feelings down inside won’t be.
If you know a veteran, you might want to ask about one of his or her Christmases past. There’s probably a story waiting to be told.