by Alan C. Mack
Sipping a hot mug of coffee is a good time to ponder current events. This morning was such a moment. With statewide travel restrictions and fear of infection on people’s minds, COVID seems to have accomplished what the Grinch could not. Christmas might not happen. It looks like we won’t be able to visit family or follow our normal traditions. Have I ever been in similar straights?
The answer is a simple yes. So, have many of my closest friends and family.
Afghanistan December 2001 is a good example: Nobody wants to be deployed during the holidays It’s no fun being away from your family. Most guys compensate by decorating their bunk area with Christmas lights or holiday bobbles. Quite frankly, I just tried to ignore it. In my opinion, Christmas was for home. My wife always went overboard decorating. She and the boys would decorate our Clarksville home with plenty of holiday cheer. I, on the other hand, was living in a burned-out building at Bagram Airfield. Decorations couldn’t hide our scorched walls, but at night, our single bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling wouldn’t throw enough light to see the damaged plaster anyway.
I’d been outside, getting some fresh air, and shivered as I entered the planning area. The damp air added some chill to our already frigid night. Fog was forming in the low areas and around the few water sources. Several guys were lounging around watching one of our few VHS tapes, while others read or wrote letters. The Christmas spirit was nowhere to be seen, except for a small two-foot-tall tree with ornaments sitting in the corner. Captain Steve Reich, aka ‘The Warden’ had just returned from a meeting with 5th Special Forces Group. They asked for a resupply mission to one of their isolated ODA teams. It was Christmas Eve, and Steve gave me the option to go or not. I asked my crew and got a unanimous, yes.
The weather was ‘iffy,’ but I saw a window of opportunity in the forecast.
We sat waiting at our Chinook, ready to go when a pickup truck full of cargo rolled up behind us. A couple of SF ODB guys downloaded a large-screen television, a VHS VCR, and a box of tapes. Our C-130 unit made an effort to bring supplies on Christmas, so who was I to say no. “F#*k it,” I said. “Merry Christmas – Let’s go.”
Once everything was tied down, we cranked and departed to the south toward Gardez. I know that nighttime is supposed to be dark, but the fog and low clouds obscured the stars, and whatever cultural lighting existed. We didn’t have Rudolph’s nose to light the way, but we did have a Multi-Mode Radar.
Chalk Two picked up a two-mile separation, and off we went.
The MMR’s terrain-following hadn’t let me down yet, and this night would be no different. In less than an hour, we were unloading our precious cargo into a Hilux pickup truck on top of a large sand dune. The SF guys were happy.
Who risks death flying through crappy weather to deliver non-essential gifts on Christmas eve? The Night Stalkers.
The look on those battle-hardened SF soldiers reminded me about the meaning of Christmas. Giving to others was the key for me. Not the gift itself, but the time, energy, and attitude that made the effort special.
I felt blessed for the opportunity to make someone’s day. We weren’t performing a lifesaving CASEVAC, we didn’t kill an Al Qaeda leader, but we softened the hearts of soldiers, reminding us all to remember that all-important humanity that can be lost in times of war. As good as giving felt, I have to admit, being on the receiving end can be just as nice. While we were out playing Santa, the same C-130 that brought in the gear for the SF ODAs, brought supplies and goodies for us too. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I walked into our sleeping area to drop my gear. My cot was a stacked with shoeboxes with my name written all over them. Tears welled up in my eyes. The timing couldn’t have been better. My wife’s Christmas spirit reached me thousands of miles from home when I needed it most.
Those boxes could have come on a later flight, a day or two later, but thanks to the
C-130’s crew and our First Sergeant, Christmas in Afghanistan wasn’t so bad. I couldn’t wait to share my holiday bounty with my roommates. The boxes were stuffed with snacks, goodies, small presents, and photos to remind me of home. All six pilots and ‘the warden’ sat under that miserable bare lightbulb with a quartz heater nearby. We talked about the night’s activities and wondered how many generations of soldiers spent their Christmas in similar circumstances or worse.
Summer sausages, crackers, cheese, tortilla chips, and salsa tasted heavenly as we feasted in our bombed-out barracks. To this day, Christmas 2001 in Afghanistan ranks as one of my most memorable and fond memories. What made the evening so special was not the events, but the people. I’d do anything for the guys I was flying with and those I supported. Our unit motto Night Stalkers Don’t Quit, wasn’t just a set of words – we lived by it. I’ve often heard it said that it’s not about the hardware, it’s the people, stupid; the kind of people would I lay down my life for.
I closed my eyes and thought about how easy that night’s mission unfolded. Just a couple of months earlier, a TF flight in the mountains of Afghanistan would be considered high risk and maybe even undoable. Yet there we were zipping over and around the terrain in limited visibility to deliver Christmas goodies. How the heck did we manage that?
Christmas spirit. I’m trying to apply that same mentality to our COVID problems. Christmas joy is a state of mind. I’m planning on calling friends I haven’t spoken with in some time. I’ll send physical gifts by mail in time for Christmas, just like my wife did for me all those years ago.
I hope all of you stay safe and healthy. Don’t let COVID get you down – Don’t Quit.