Vets Say War Doesn't Have to Steal Christmas

Vietnam veteran Michael Milne remembers what it's like to spend the holidays at war.

"The first Christmas, we made a tree out of barbed wire and hung all kinds of junk on it," said the 57-year-old former sergeant.

A year later, Milne and his men went all out: Armed with T-bone steaks and beer, he held a barbecue, even dressing up — "beard and everything" — in a Santa Claus suit his mom had sent over for the occasion.

"War drags on, but you pretty much get a day off (on Christmas)," said Milne, who today serves as national commmander of the Veterans of the Vietnman War. "You still don’t relax or anything, but you kick back a little bit."

As hundreds of thousands of American men and women have done before them, many in the U.S. military will spend their first Christmas overseas this year, miles and miles from home.

Air Force Sgt. Melissa White knows the feeling. She was in Bosnia for the 1999-2000 holiday season and is in Korea for this one.

"Nobody really wants to be there — people would rather be home in the States celebrating," said White, 30. "It’s a time of season where you’re so used to being with family … You really try to pull yourself out of a situation like that. It can get kind of lonely."

She has coped by getting creative with Christmas-cheer celebrations.

In a snow-covered Bosnia, White’s unit held three days of festivities to accommodate for different work schedules. Among the activities were pie-in-the-face contests, snowball fights, a candlight ceremony for missing soldiers and a reading from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

There were even plenty of stuffed stockings to go around, thanks to donations of T-shirts, key chains, miniature footballs and other gifts made by American companies who responded to letters written by the servicemen. And there was a real-life "Combat Santa," dressed in the usual Christmas outfit — along with a helmet, protective vest and M-16 rifle.

"We were able to make a very unique, homey situation out of a lot of nothing," said White.

This year, in Korea, there will be traditional American and Creole feasts, as well as a cookie-baking, hot-chocolate-drinking pajama party on Christmas Eve.

"No matter how old they are, they’re still kids at heart," White said, laughing. "I have the imagination of a five-year-old."

Some war veterans say they marked the holiday season with charity work.

"We had the opportunity to play Santa Claus and actually go visit an orphanage," said Richard Schlude, 55, a Vietnam War Army veteran stationed in Nha Trang at the time. "That made it homey."

Letters and packages from family, friends and strangers also saved Christmas for Schlude, as they no doubt have for many other soldiers.

"Mail is the best thing in the world," he said. "We had support from home, and we had mail from elementary-school children. That kept your spirits going."

White suggests the "helping others" remedy for those overseas this year who might be feeling a bit of loneliness.

"The best advice is to reach out to the people they are deployed with," she said. "If they feel themselves going into a shell, they should do what they can, even for just one or two people."

Gulf War Navy vet Tony Willner, who spent Christmas 1990 on the USS Kiska, said the chaplain onboard did just that to make the holiday meaningful. He organized a Christmas Eve get-together for two ships moored next to each other, complete with caroling, prayers and a candle lighting.

"It was really special. Quite a few people were able to attend," said Willner, 35. "It made a huge difference."

White conceded holiday time can be "bittersweet" when you’re stationed somewhere far away. "You really would like to be home, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Christmas and you feel like you’re missing out on something," she said.

Still, those who are in Afghanistan and elsewhere this year should take heart.

"The sweet part of it is that you’re not alone," White added. "Everyone does pull together to take care of each other. You form some of the strongest friendships you can ever imagine."