This Holiday Season, a Break From War
As America leaves Afghanistan, more soldiers celebrate Christmas at home
Soldiers, airmen and their family members crowded together by a stage, as a local youth choir sang Christmas carols.
They were there for the annual tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 4, marking the beginning of the holiday season on post. It was a typically damp Pacific Northwest evening at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
A light drizzle fell from the sky as darkness set.
Col. Charles Hodges, JBLM’s base commander, took the stage to address the crowd. “I’m happy to say that for the first time in 10 years, 90 percent of the Joint Base’s population will be home instead of deployed this Christmas,” the officer told the crowd.
A cheer erupted.
The years since the 9/11 attacks have not been easy on the service members in the crowd—nor on their families. This year they’ll be spending the holiday season together for a change.
The United States’ formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended this month, and the U.S. troop presence in the country is falling sharply.
Now soldiers are returning home to bases across America. Many of them have deployed multiple times during the past decade.
It has been the longest war in American history.
Constant deployments have taken a toll on the military families. Parents missed birthdays, first words, recitals, graduations and holidays. Some families haven’t been able to endure the strain—divorce is common in the military.
Between wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,848 Americans will never make it back to their families, according to the Pentagon’s casualty statistics as of Dec. 11. Two U.S. soldiers died in a Dec. 12 attack on a convoy in Afghanistan.
A world at war
Though more troops are home, the military hasn’t stopped fighting and preparing for war. They continue training for a wide range of threats, from the conventional to the catastrophic.
“The holiday season is a wonderful time to take a break and reconnect with family and friends,” read a Facebook post from the JBLM-based 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion. “Unfortunately, it is not a time we can let our guard down.”
The post tells soldiers to be careful during the holidays. It mentions there are “no specific threats against JBLM or the soldiers of the 502nd.” But “recent attacks in Canada and warnings issued by the FBI remind us that we must remain vigilant,” the post added.
The 502nd advised troops to be careful about what they post to social media, so extremists can’t gather information on the unit, individual soldiers or their families.
Even as the commitment to Afghanistan winds down, the U.S. is escalating the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. A-10 Warthog attack jets redeployed from Afghanistan to Iraq, where they are pounding militants with heavy weapons.
Though “no boots on the ground” has been the mantra of White House officials—who prefer not to call the campaign against Islamic State a war—more advisers have increasingly made their way back to Iraq.
Army chief Gen. Martin Dempsey has not ruled out ground troops in the war. In particular, he’s told reporters the Iraqi army could need help if it tries to retake Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city.
In Ukraine, government troops and separatists skirmish while Russian commandos and agents fight in the shadows. The war is Ukraine has re-ignited Cold War tensions. Many Eastern European states are beefing up their defenses—and asking the Americans to help them.
The U.S. military also remains active in the fight against Ebola. Though commanders have said cases are decreasing and that most U.S. troops could be home by next summer, the death toll is still high and requires a long-term international commitment.
America’s military engagements are not over.
But at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, more American troops coming home is something to celebrate.
They have sacrificed more than most Americans can imagine.
America has asked them to play simultaneous diplomat and warrior. They’ve built schools and bombed strongholds. Troops saved lives even as they took them. They’ve had to make difficult choices and live with the consequences.
In the future, America is likely to ask more of them.
But after years of wars, constant deployments and lost friends, the men and women who fight these conflicts deserve a break. They’ve earned it. And their families have earned the right to spend the holidays with their loved ones.