National view: Serving one's country a real Christmas gift

The e-mail arrived in mid-November, about a month after our 21-year-old son, a sergeant in the Army, began his second tour in Iraq: "[Send] an xmas tree and xmas lights. kthnxbye!"...

The e-mail arrived in mid-November, about a month after our 21-year-old son, a sergeant in the Army, began his second tour in Iraq: "[Send] an xmas tree and xmas lights. kthnxbye!"

For the second time in his short life, Dylan will be spending Christmas in a war zone. As parents, we miss him deeply -- even more so during the holidays. We disagree with the government's decision to invade Iraq, which was clearly not a national security threat. Nonetheless, we believe our son's destiny is to be a soldier, and he goes where he is ordered to go. We are proud of his service and dedication to his country.

This year, he joins the other 200,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq who won't be home for the holidays. The surge of troops that President Barack Obama is sending to Afghanistan means that even more soldiers won't be spending Christmas with family and friends. They will not be around to help decorate the tree, hang up the outdoor lights, sing favorite holiday songs, enjoy the holiday meal or open presents around the tree. There will be no visit to Grandma's.

Nearly three years ago, our son was a newly minted private and among the first "surge" soldiers in Iraq. The new troops headed into Afghanistan are likely to face a similar situation. Dylan's first 15 months in Iraq were spent on the ground and in the air. As a cavalry scout, he is a front-line infantry soldier. He chased suspected terrorists, searched homes, provided bomb disposal security and drove a Bradley tank. He shot and was shot at. He saw death and maiming; some comrades were wounded by flying bone fragments from other soldiers.

He lived mostly out of his back pack and showered with gallon jugs of water. He slept where he could -- on the ground, under a lean-to. Sometimes he shared a tent with 17 other soldiers sleeping on cots two feet apart. Because of the noise from generators, Black Hawk helicopters and trucks, he and other soldiers slept with their iPods turned up high.


Dylan, his fellow soldiers and their friends and families know the real cost of war. More than 5,300 soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 31,000 have been wounded. Just after his promotion to sergeant in October, but before heading back to Iraq, he sent his mother and me this note:

"Since I've been in the military I've lost more friends than I care to count -- all under the age of 21. This past weekend I lost the closest of friends so far. He was one of the team leaders in my platoon last time [I was in Iraq] and he was a role model to me. I cared very much for this guy and he died defending his outpost in Afghanistan. Sarge, I think of you often when confronted with the challenges of being an NCO. You were really a role model."

When Dylan visited us this past summer, people wondered if he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder: How are you really doing? He's doing fine, but he says the word "disorder" is offensive. Post-traumatic stress is inevitable for anyone who has been in combat. "It's a disorder if you come back without PTS," he says.

Iraq is a different country this time around, my son says. The surge seems to have worked, for the time being anyway. Infrastructure is coming back, shops are open, people are farming. This time Dylan expects to spend most of his tour at a large base in southern Iraq, where he has a bed in a "containerized housing unit." But he lives under the constant threat of attack, and the need for the latest intelligence means endless missions.

Of course, I responded to his Christmas e-mail immediately (it can take up to three weeks for a package to reach him). I sent a tabletop tree, a small wreath for his door, some colored lights and a few other decorations. We also sent presents. But like the thousands of families and friends of soldiers at war, we wish we could do more. We wish our son could be home with his wife and that they would be dropping by for Christmas dinner. We wish he was near enough to hug.

Instead, he and the other soldiers will be the real gift givers for yet another Christmas -- they are putting their lives on the line for their country.

Stephen E. Wright is a former editorial page editor and vice president for the San Jose Mercury News in California and works now as vice president for strategic communications for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He can be contacted at .

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