Anyone who has ever pledged his very heart to the protection of “Old Glory” can tell you that hope has a shape. Sharp at the edges, warm handwriting gracing the front (and sometimes the back), a paper life raft in the uncertainties of war.
Captain Michaels sat 100 meters from his tent, his gaze lost somewhere on the horizon. He savored these times. The most recent letter from Michelle came last night. He saved it for the sunrise, as had become his custom. For the next ten minutes he’d lose himself in her prose, laugh at her sarcastic descriptions of people she’d met, and cry at the things he’d missed with the kids. These mornings had seen him through more than a few firefights this year. They protected him more than the Marine Corp issue flak jacket ever could.
Dear Jeff, It’s hard to believe we’ve spent more Christmases apart than together. I have to admit, I’ve gotten really handy with picking the perfect tree and setting it up. I still can’t make the Christmas lights look as great as yours (thanks to your drill sergeant from basic training for your eye for detail), but the girls love it and I find myself feeling like I’ve conquered something when it’s finished. When you get home you may have to fight me to take back this job… who knows?
He loved her for her grace, for her soft heart and in this moment, he loved her for her strength. 10 years with her had taught him a lot. She made him proud to wear his uniform every day, even if it took him half way across the world. She understood his heart better than he did. She knew that the Marine Corps was in his blood, not a uniform, not a title, but a heartbeat. Oooh-rah! Oooh-rah!
The sun was beating mercilessly now. As he finished the last of her missive from the home front, Michaels contemplated Christmas. In 100 degree weather at 09:00, it was easy to forget ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘White Christmas’. As he walked back toward his tent, his eyes fell on the tattered flag flapping in the breeze. Beneath it, a cardboard sign hung, drooping with the weight of the names it carried: men and women, boys and girls really, who had given their very life for freedom. Yes, here, in this godforsaken sandbox, it was easy to forget the baby in the manger. That innocence, that hope seemed too great a contrast to this reality.
“Captain Michaels!” the voice belonged to a soldier no more than 19. “Sir, I wanted to make sure you got this – we found it this morning in the mail tent. It’s addressed to you.” As he stretched out his arm, Jeff saw a box covered with crayon and stickers. In an instant he was transported back to that March evening 8 years ago when Michelle had shown him that EPT…
“Captain?” The poor soldier looked worried.
“I’m fine corporal. Thank you for this.”
He didn’t wait for the soldier to disappear into the tent, ripping and tearing he opened the package like a starving soldier on an MRE. Inside, wrapped in bright pink tissue paper was a CD. We love you daddy was scrawled across it in Sarah’s handwriting. He trotted into his tent and opened his laptop. The tent was deserted for the moment (a serendipitous gift?), so no one else saw his family appear on the screen.
His girls, dressed in their Christmas dresses, blond hair curled around their pure faces and Michelle – beaming with so much pride it was a wonder her tiny frame could contain it.
“Daddy” he speakers tinned, “we wanted to show you the Christmas pageant we’ve been working on.” Emily at 5 had more stage presence than most Broadway actors. As they backed away from the camera, they began to sing for him.
“Rudolf the red nosed reindeer...” Did he deserve this precious gift on Christmas?
“Had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it, you would even say it glowed-“
“LIKE A LIGHTBULB!” The voices behind him surprised him. As he looked up through his tears he saw that the tent was no longer empty. Soldiers, his family this year, were packed in like sardines, transfixed by the voice coming from his speakers. They jostled together and joined their voices with his daughters in the purest Christmas carol he’d ever heard. Christmas hope had come to Afghanistan.
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