Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Empty Chair At The Table

Team Hooligan Christmas Eve, Iraq, 2009

December 25, 2012

I hardly slept last night.

Neighbors a few doors down were throwing a rather loud party that lasted until nearly 4 am. For various reasons, I am a rather light sleeper. Still, it is rare the sun rises before I do. I slept later than usual, rising at 5:45. I took care of my usual morning chores of tending to the pets and getting that first cup of Joe in my system.

I wasn't woken by an excited child. I would have welcomed that. But that was not the case this year. Santa is coming this afternoon. No, I was just awake by habit.

I did my normal routine, albeit starting about an hour later than normal, and checked news wires, tip-lines, and the like in case there was some breaking item or event that urged me to write. All seemed quiet. It's the quiet hours that get to me most, even now, three years since my last deployment.

A colleague sent out a Christmas message  thanking all veterans and current military service members. This urged me to view a few videos and look at a few old photographs. I read a few holiday blogs meant to show support for soldiers. I then searched for a version of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" that has been a favorite for a couple of decades. The poem is written from Santa's point of view as he stumbled upon a US Soldier or Marine deployed to a conflict zone.

I spent the next hour or so in tears.

You can call me weak if you wish. These tears are my strength as they are gifts of pride, honor, and unbreakable bonds that no civilian can ever hope to comprehend. These tears are because, in the homes of many families I know, there is an empty chair at the Christmas dinner table.

I am not a Christian. I have not been one for over 20 years. Christmas does not have a religious meaning for me. However, most of  my family members are Christian. So were my adopted family members. Those are families who welcomed  me into their homes during the holidays while stationed far from my blood relatives. Those  are the families of deployed  Soldiers who bonded together while deployed, acting as if we had a long family tradition to uphold, though the celebrations were more thrown together attempts to make being at war more bearable for a few short hours.

Some of  those members of that adopted family went home early. Some of  them in pieces. Some of them burned beyond recognition. They went home to enjoy the peaceful rest they earned.

I miss them.

I know their families  do as well.

So now, instead of a rough and tumble Soldier smiling and joking, there is an empty space at their table.

And the tears remind me that each of them has given us a gift. That gift is that we each are alive and still free to celebrate our holiday among our families. That gift renews each year that remains true. They gave their lives so it would be so.

I ask you to not squander that gift. Send prayers of thanks to that empty chair at the table. Send prayers of hope and love to the family surrounding it, that they may feel their Soldier sitting there in spirit. Send them thoughts so they know the chair is not empty for nothing, but for everything.

Let our tears be not ones of sadness and grief, but of pride, love and joy -- and gratitude.