WHILST MOST OF US cosied up with family and friends this Christmas time, exchanging presents and sharing the Christmas dinner in, as we can normally expect, relaxed and pleasant company, we should take a moment to remember all those whoare not so lucky and may find themselves spending the festive season in less pleasant circumstances.
One group that frequently misses out on the traditional setting and celebrations are those servicemen and women who are serving abroad. Whilst most make considerable efforts to celebrate the event, often going to commendable lengths in attempts to add some festive cheer to often forbidding surroundings, it can never be quite the same as being at home in the bosom of their families.
So, what’s it like being in the military and away from home at this time of year? Well, it’s different, that’s for sure! For a start, more often than not many of our troops spend it somewhere much more dangerous than in the UK. Think of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, where Christmas is not a natural celebration for the bulk of their respective populations and where a sizeable proportion of them would do their utmost to spoil it for our troops even if it was.
And the weather’s different too. Despite whatever our Australian cousins may continually tell you, spending Christmas in a warm climate is for us distinctly odd. Turkey and all the trimmings in mid-summer down under is a bit like us having a salad for Christmas dinner up here. I can remember well a Christmas meal eaten outside in temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade and consisting of fresh prawns and fruit!
So it can be a bit lonely and strange if you’re in uniform and overseas at this time of year. Of course, modern communications – mobile phones, e-mail, the internet – help to bring home and family closer. But it’s hardly an adequate substitute. And if you’re getting shot at by various unfriendly locals, as inevitably some of our boys and girls will be this year, it could make the whole thing decidedly unpleasant.
But there are, thankfully, some things that come together to make it much less miserable than we might think for our service personnel.
First of all there’s the comradeship. Individuals who have trained together and in many cases fought together tend to have a special bond of friendship which is difficult to understand for those who have never donned uniform. It is classless and transcends rank in its most basic form. The ethos that puts the welfare of your comrades above your own doesn’t just apply when the bullets are flying. If you’re away from home at Christmas, then you’re not the only one. You’re all in it together, and the shared experience lightens the load.
Then there’s the support from home, a vital ingredient in keeping morale high. Again, if you’ve never been abroad in uniform then you’ll probably never realise just quite how important mail from home can be. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s often the highlight of the week. At Christmas it takes on an extra relevance and poignancy for those who are separated from their loved ones.
On top of letters and cards, there are the other “goodies” which organisations like the Red Cross and Royal British Legion send out to the troops abroad. I’ve still got the Red Cross box I was sent in the Gulf at Christmas in 1990, plus most of its contents. We were delighted by the simple things it contained – toothpaste and brush, shaving foam and razor, pair of sunglasses and even a Frisbee!
Finally, and not least, there’s the support that is local. Almost without exception, wherever British troops are serving there is also a British diplomatic presence, plus an expatriate community of diplomats, business people, and retirees. In my experience, these people always go out of their way to make Christmas time as special as they can for the servicemen and women who are nearby, going to great lengths to ensure that everyone has an invitation, or a present, or just someone to talk to. Their contribution should not be underestimated.
As for me, my only experience of Christmas abroad on operations was, as I have already alluded, during the first Gulf War of 1990-91. Typically, I landed in Riyahd in Saudi Arabia exactly three weeks to the day after my wedding, leaving my new wife to fend for herself in Germany. She spent Christmas at home with her family; I spent it in the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh, a guest of the diplomatic community, who did their very best to make me feel at home. I am eternally grateful to them for their kindness.
So, as you prepare to polish off your turkey leftovers, spare a thought for the lads and lassies of all three services who are spending the Christmas season overseas. If you have the time, drop them a card, give them a phone, send them and e-mail or even send them a present, no matter how small or simple.
It will make all the difference to the sailors, soldiers and airmen and women serving in all corners of the globe on our behalf.
© Stuart Crawford 2017, a former army officer and now a freelance defence and security commentator. Photo courtesy of the Daily Express.