I write this some days later with better clarity of mind and a deeper need to tell the story.
The day began clear and sunny and work continued at my desk until noon or so. I tried to call the Battalion Aid Station to clear up a misunderstanding over some issue or another, but the phone lines to the Army side of the base were not working….again. I left for the Christmas meal to help serve dinner to the soldiers and airmen that were far from home trying to find some normalcy on the eve that we celebrate the birth of Christ in this holy land. Later, I joined my new found friends for a Christmas meal, who, like me, were thrust into this incongruous setting in which we all wished for Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men, while serving up death to those who continued to deal in anarchy.
All the dinner guests were dressed alike. They wore subdued, sand colored clothing and were engaged in quiet conversation, trying to help each other through the moment. There were forced smiles and Christmas greetings, and all was well as we enjoyed our break from the routine of 24/7. As I crunched through the gravel on my way back to the hospital, dodging the mud and the pools of water, I muttered to myself that a dry spot would be welcomed. I might have felt a chill run through me, I don’t know. If there was a chill, it seemed no different than any other chill felt on a cold winter day. It was nearing 3 o’clock as I unzipped the door to my office, felt the warmth of the tent and sat at my desk to finish up some work that was probably inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but seemingly important at the time. An anthrax issue, I believe it was, on this Christmas Eve. I tried, again, to call the Aid Station, but with no success. Another barrier to progress, I thought; and I grumbled something to the others in the room. I watched the clock creep toward evening and night soon fell on this land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I thought about Chris, I thought about Sara and Ron and my Mother; and I wondered what they were doing this Christmas Eve. I thought about my friends and I thought about why we were here. Of course I knew why we were here. We were here to bring freedom to a nation oppressed. Not to bring our American way of life (though that is probably inevitable) but to bring the gift of freedom. A gift. It seemed appropriate at this time of year to be giving such a gift. A costly gift to be sure, but none-the-less; a gift freely given.
As the evening grew deeper, I met with others to carol and bring some cheer to those working through the night, and maybe bring some cheer to my own Christmas Eve. The Chaplin chose to avoid singing politically correct Christmas carols. We sang “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” over the sharp contrast of distant gunfire and the beating blades of helicopters as they moved, unlit, through the night to deliver destiny to those who opposed us. We stopped by the dining tent and the fire department, security forces and control tower, the communication squadron…
Around 9 o’clock or so, I went to a Christmas Eve service in a drafty hanger that had been converted, for the moment, into an Army Chapel. As the service was ending, the radio that the Chaplin carried crackled to life, and a call came in. “Big Dog to Sheppard.” “This is Sheppard.” “Sheppard, this is Big Dog. Report to the flight line.” We wondered what the need at the flight line was this time of night, but we drove through the heavy fog and the damp night and found a small group of soldiers huddled near the warm edges of a fire burning in a barrel. The fire seemed to chase away the bone jarring cold and give life to the night. We wondered if these men were the reason for the radio call. We greeted each other. Asked what was up. Wished a Merry Christmas, but found no reason for us to be there. The smoke from the wood smelled nearly like a Yule log and we moved closer to the fire. Soon the sound of a C-130 droned through the fog and the shadow of a green, winged giant appeared through the cold misty curtain. As the plane parked at its pre-determined spot, some of the troops grumbled that this must be the plane they had been waiting hours for. The engines were cut, and the soldiers, anxious to leave, were glad to know that the delays that had been dealt to them all day were over.
The radio spoke again. This time it was radio traffic between two others caught in this night. “Fish Fan to Jackal.” “This is Jackal.” “Jackal, is the package ready?” “Jackal to Fish Fan, the package is ready.”
A package, I thought. Christmas Eve. Was this some kind of special Christmas delivery? Mail and packages for the troops, perhaps? As the aft cargo door lowered to the ground, the sound of marching penetrated the night. The dim light from the cargo bay caused the fog to glow and sent shadows of light toward the sound of the footsteps. They began appearing. In formation, in unison, in silence; but for the sound of footbeats in the sand. A hundred. Two hundred. Three Hundred. They lined up four deep on each side, creating a corridor behind the aircraft, stretching for 50 yards or more. A fork lift appeared and removed a dozen or so pallets from the belly of the plane. Cargo to supply some corner of the war.
I would describe them as young soldiers who were standing tall and straight. But no one is young in war. They were soldiers. Airborne. Helmeted and standing in the cold chill of this Christmas Eve in their desert battle dress. Carrying the tools that protect them; field packs, bulky flack jackets, M-16’s, 50 caliber machine guns, grenades and courage.
The headlights of a HumVee pierced through the fog. The breath from the soldiers nostrils swirled through the amber radiance of the muddy headlamps as the vehicle moved through the human corridor. The tell-tale red-cross markings of the field ambulance were covered with louvers that allowed it to be converted from a machine of mercy to a machine of death. Tonight it was not on a mission of mercy or a mission of death. It was on death’s mission. It was delivering a package. A special package.
The war wagon stopped and two soldiers opened the rear doors. Eight soldiers, clothed in the muted colors of the landscape approached the open doors and removed the package. They carried it past the living cordon and up the ramp of the aircraft into the warm glow of the cargo bay lights. The flag was a sad flag, but it served her son well. It served her son as the son had served her. It draped the coffin of a soldier whose name I didn’t know. A soldier who died getting the job done. A soldier who would have left in less than a month to pursue the rest of his life. A soldier going home too soon.
His comrades dropped their salutes’, formed into neat ranks and files and marched into the night. Three hundred pairs of desert boots sounding like one. The small group of soldiers clustered around the fire gathered their belongings and entered the chasm they would call home for the next few hours. Flying together into the night with a special package, across the land that brought the Light of God to mankind.
Death is not a clean business. The leftovers of death must be dealt with. And the dirty business of death’s details had to be finished. Items were gathered and put in an incongruously bright orange bag. I measured my steps from one sand bag to the next as I approached the back door of my office and placed the bag at the back door of my office for disposal in the morning…Christmas Morning. It seemed natural to sit down at my computer and send a message of love to those that matter most to me.
It wasn’t until Christmas Morning when I called the Battalion Aid Station again, and got through, that I learned that SGT Yashinski was the soldier’s name. Michael E. Yashinski, he was 23 years old. He graduated a year ahead of his school mates from Columbine High School just three years before death visited there. I was told that he was truly an Army of One. A call came in to the help desk to troubleshoot a line that wasn’t working. Someone else was tasked to do the job, but being Christmas Eve and all, SGT Yashinski told them he would pick up the slack on this one. “Ski” was a careful and methodical worker, and he took time to teach others his skills. But on Christmas Eve, he wasn’t careful enough. You see, SGT Yashinski was working on a communications line on Christmas Eve. It was the phone line that connected the Battalion Aid Station to the Air Force Hospital. Instead of carrying messages and voices, the line was carrying 220 volts of electricity. He died doing his job. He died because someone else didn’t do theirs.
I suppose it can be said that we’re all just doing our jobs. But for the Grace of God we get up each day and do our jobs. Sometimes fate steps in and we are not allowed to complete the job. But one job we can be certain to complete is to love one another and let not a day go by without giving thanks for those about you. Let not a day pass without knowing the joy of living, even among the dark times. Let not a single “I love you” go unsaid. It is for those I love that I write message. To tell them how much they mean to me, and how much I know that we depend on each other for strength and courage. Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy, and my wife to be, who is the love of my life, and all of my family and all of my friends beam sunshine onto my shoulders each day. For that I am thankful, and for that I give thanks.
The memorial service was crisp, dignified and accomplished with military precision. The large tent held 400 or more soldiers and airmen with more standing outside. “Amazing Grace” was played by a soldier on the bag pipes. The empty desert boots cradled his inverted M-16. His helmet was carefully balanced on the butt of his weapon. Dog tags hung from the trigger guard. Kind words were expressed from his workmates and buddy. The platoon roll call was read, but SGT Yashinski didn’t answer to his name. The muffled sound of Taps could be heard from outside the tent and the sharp report of 21 guns echoed as a single shot.
Day is done.
And the dawn of a long day’s night begins for his Mother, his Father and others who called him their own.