It’s been a tough year, making the wonder of the holiday season even more important. This Christmas, my family will celebrate with a big tree and a tiny ceramic village. There’ll be gifts and treats, and here in Spokane, Bing Crosby’s old hometown, we’ll watch his 1954 classic White Christmas in the gorgeous 107-year-old Bing Crosby Theater. Most importantly, I’ll enjoy good times with loved ones.
But I remember a different Christmas 18 years ago in Afghanistan, which, though crowded with my fellow soldiers, nevertheless at first felt lonely. It’s hard to be so far from home during the holidays. The Army shipped us a plastic tree, and Sgt. Dave “Cookmaster” Nicks whipped us up a feast, but sad echoes of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” rang through our heads.
My unit wasn’t even scheduled to receive the Christmas mail that had accumulated at our main air base. Then, someone complained to a general, and a pissed-off Army Chinook helicopter crew was dispatched with sacks of our packages. As soon as they landed, they started throwing our mail out on the ground, rotor wash blowing our letters all over.
“I don’t care what you rank!” I yelled at a Chinook crew officer. “You will stop throwing our stuff! These are everyone’s Christmas gifts!”
Mail call was an exciting time on deployment in the Army. The guys were pretty thrilled to receive Christmas packages. Suddenly, our little base was filled with all sorts of treats.
Our task force chaplain couldn’t be there, so on that Christmas Eve night, worship was up to us. It involved music played from a CD, a couple of candles, and the soldier who led the service trying to remember the finer points of his denomination’s liturgy.
Amir, one of our Afghan interpreters, met us on the way to our service. “You are going to have your worship for your Christmas? If it is OK for you, may some of us also come to this with you?”
“You Afghan guys want to come to church?” I asked.
“If it is allowed.”
All of us soldiers shrugged. We had never had Muslims at our little church, but we had trusted them with our lives many times. And so, although we were unsure what they would gain from our worship service, we welcomed them.
Our interpreters are great men. We were separated by culture and experience, but we grew close in the bond that unites people who have served together in war. I wish the world could have learned from our worship that night. It wasn’t that hard to get along. We were Christians, and they were Muslims. We differed on many points of theology, but we called upon the same God for peace, safety, and success in our missions.
When we started to talk about the birth of Jesus, our Afghan interpreters surprised us. “Yes!” Amir said. “This also, about Jesus, is in our holy Quran!”
There began an increasingly enthusiastic discussion of those elements our two holy books had in common.
“We have this man, you say Joseph,” Amir explained. “But we call him Yusuf. And we call Abraham by name Ibrahim.”
“Outrageous! We should fight over this!” I joked, and we all laughed.
It wasn’t a white Christmas like the ones we used to know. We were lucky to get any mail, and we always missed home. But Christmas in Afghanistan back in 2004 was a special time, full of peace and friendship. Now, of course, thanks to President Joe Biden’s betrayal of our mission in Afghanistan and abandonment of our Afghan allies, all those good interpreters are Taliban targets. I remember them and continue to pray and work for their deliverance to safety. Eighteen years ago, on a fine Christmas night in Afghanistan, there was wonder and so much hope. And that, dear reader, is what I wish for you and yours, now and in the year to come.
Trent Reedy, author of several books, including Enduring Freedom, served as a combat engineer in the Iowa National Guard from 1999 to 2005, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
*Some names and call signs in this story may have been changed due to operational security or privacy concerns.