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A Christmas wish for a soldier named Alex

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Posted: Tuesday, December 23, 2003 10:00 pm

It is Christmas time once again - but it is also a wartime Christmas which means hundreds of thousands of young Americans are far from home serving their country and all too many of them are in harm's way.

Indeed, some of them may die this Christmas Day.

For their families back home, it will be celebration tinged with both sadness and apprehension for as the old soldier's song goes, there is a vacant chair at the table.

And for those in the military, it's a time when loneliness truly sucks and the efforts to spruce up a bunker, a barracks or even an Iraqi palace to be as Christmassy as possible seems a cross between truly touching and a sad farce.

Those long ago feelings were brought home to me once again Monday when I got an unexpected "Christmas present" from the streets of Baghdad.

It came in the form an e-mail from an old high school buddy, Bill Beaton, who now lives in Florida. He had e-mailed me a picture of his son Alex, 21, who is with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. In our modern high-tech age, the photo had been taken only hours before in Baghdad, downloaded and send whizzing along the great Informational Super Highway to Bill, who, in turn, routed it with digital speed on to me.

The photo was stunning: Alex, a Humvee driver, was posing for some pictures being taken by his gunner when someone shouted out, "VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) inbound!" Alex whirled around and opened up on the approaching vehicle - the action being caught by the camera.

Chet DiestelIn a monument to understatement, my old friend Bill added, "Don't know the outcome at this moment, but the fact that Alex e-mailed the picture is certainly a good sign."

Bill ended his message with, "Thought this would brighten up your day."

It did. But like his dad, it also filled me with concern for a young man facing life and death situations on a daily basis. But that is, regrettably, the lot of the combat soldier.

Very intelligent and outgoing, Alex, who was born in Carmel, left Florida State University for the Army in August 2001. Following 9/11, Alex, in his father's words, "determined that if he was going to be in the Army, that he wanted to be in the fight" and be "the tip of the spear." Therefore, he went to jump school and joined the 82nd Airborne Division on a journey that eventually took him and his comrades to the streets of Baghdad where he has had many close calls these past nine months. Alex will turn 22 on Jan. 29 and is scheduled to return home in February.

It is almost Christmas Day in Iraq and my mind can't shake the thought of young Americans like Alex and their families back home.

For the soldiers there will be packages from home - maybe - full of cookies, candy, stocking stuffers and needed items like pre-paid calling cards.

And they'll try to make their temporary homes look as much like Christmas as possible with varying results. There will trees, of course, - often small and scrawny - with sagging branches full of Jerry-rigged decorations.

Chaplains will hold services honoring the prince of peace to congregations with weapons strapped to their legs or assault rifles on their shoulders. Christmas dinners will be dished out to men in desert camouflage uniforms. Carols will be sung just like at home, but with every note tinged with the sadness of separation for fighting a war means you exist in the darkest place in the world and at Christmas, it's always pitch black.

And what about Alex? What type of Christmas Day will he have in old Baghdad?

"I have to go to Bravo Company for 48 hours. I don't even get to spend X-mas with my platoon. I have to spend the 24th and 25th doing missions with Bravo," Alex wrote his dad Tuesday.

Not much of a Christmas, by anyone's standards, but the missions are necessary and someone has to do them. And we should all take great pride in those like Alex who are willing to do them. They are brave people.

And although he is far from home and family, I'm still going to offer Alex a Christmas gift - the only one in my power to give. In reality, it's a wish really: May all the Christmases to come, for soldiers everywhere, be spent at home with their families and friends in a world at peace.

Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinel’s city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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