I was attending my church’s Kids’ Christmas program, and the depiction of the three wise men brought back some memories for me of a Christmas I spent far from home a few years ago. It was Christmas 2003, and I was in Baghdad, Iraq. I had been sent there by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, leading a team of 20 senior field grade officers to help the Coalition Provisional Authority in what would be its last six months of duty. Our group was referred to as “the Colonels.” We arrived in country on 30 November.
As we settled into our duties, things got interesting. We were there less then ten days, and Ambassador Bremer got to make his famous pronouncement, “We got him.” They had caught Saddam Hussein. While the remainder of our time in Iraq was quite eventful (the Al Sadr uprising and the difficulties in and around Fallujah, to name a couple), we had a relatively quiet first few weeks.
On Christmas Eve, I attended a church service in what had one of the main meeting rooms of Saddam’s Palace. It was now a multi-faith chapel. I walked out into the surprisingly cool Iraqi evening and looked up into the clear sky. The thought hit me that I was looking up into the same piece of sky, which 2000 years earlier, the three wise men marveled at the sudden presence of a new star. That was a very special night for me.
The next day was Christmas morning, and like Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines, down through the years, and all around the world, it was difficult to be away from my family on the quintessential family holiday. My friend and trailer mate (yes, even colonels had to share space) Kevin and I exchanged gifts that our families had sent us, thanked the Lord for our safety so far, and started the day. It was not a day off in Iraq. Other than the greetings we all shared, it was just another day on deployment.
Late in the day, a bomb went off in the city. We had folks respond and find out what had happened. Fortunately it was no too much, but I knew it would get attention back in DC, since it was Christmas Day. I decided to call back to the watch standers in the Pentagon to give them the information on the incident. I gave them all the data I had. About an hour later I got a call. It was one of the young sergeants at the Office of the SecDef. He said that the Secretary wanted to speak with me. I have to tell you that the first thing that went through my mind was, “Oh man, he is going to want more details, and I don’t have them.” The Boss is well known for wanting to know everything about such situations.
SecDef Rumsfeld came on the line, and said “Steve, how are you?” I was blown away. It was just the start. It was like getting a call from your dad. He went on to thank me for taking the time to call in the information personally. Then he thanked me for leading the team, asked me to give his personal thanks to all of “The Colonels” (I didn’t know he had picked up the name too) for their willingness to volunteer for this mission. We chatted for about 15 minutes. It was the sort of very human moment that those of us who were privileged to work directly with the Boss had seen before, but was directly the opposite of the persona that was portrayed in the press. I was humbled.
No service member likes to be away during the holidays. I know I didn’t. My son didn’t like it when he was the one away. That said, serving one’s country gives you a treasure trove of memories. Memories that cannot be replaced.