This past July, as many Pennsylvania families embarked on their annual summer vacations at crowded beaches up and down the coast, I found myself willingly delegated to serving cake at a deployment party for National Guard troops departing in September.
The Nomads of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard 104th Aviation Regiment were winding down the training they’ve been participating in for the last year. Bright smiles, witty banter and camaraderie among those military friends and families characterized the mood of the day.
The contrast between the good-timing friends at July’s deployment party and the faces bearing the telltale signs of sleepless nights and wearisome farewells only a few weeks later reminded me of pictures I once saw illustrating Abraham Lincoln’s rapid aging progression before and after the Civil War.
When the 104th departed Fort Indiantown Gap for another homeland location fifteen hundred miles away in a faraway land, we wouldn’t be seeing them again for another year.
When the day of departure came, tears were shed by those who were being left behind as they tried to savor every last second with their departing dads, moms, grandparents, sons, daughters, best friends. Parents held their sons and daughters in bearhugs as their soldier-child stifled the urge to cry.
At the deployment ceremony, Army leadership and government dignitaries praised the soldiers, recognizing their selfless service and dedication to the mission that lay ahead. Those of us in the audience couldn’t have been prouder of these men and women wearing the Army uniform. With the closing benediction prayer, the soldiers were given two more hours to spend with their loved ones.
I’ve always been mindful of the sacrifice of both soldiers abroad and families left behind but I will never forget the sound of the heavy thump of the rotor blades of the Chinook helicopters as the they gave us one last flyover before carrying our brave soldiers away on that day in September.
Despite the incessant political trash talk, come November, voters in the U.S. are free to engage our constitutional right to cast ballots for the presidential candidate of our choice without fear of suicide bombers or other deadly attacks meant to disrupt the election. We are also free to celebrate Thanksgiving, which George Washington proclaimed, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
This holiday, I’ll be watching marathon episodes of my favorite Hallmark Christmas shows from my comfy couch with my comfy pillow and my warm blanket, knowing that nighttime temperatures drop to freezing where our soldiers are stationed. And I know the ability to enjoy my warmth and freedom is because of all the men and women willing to serve around the world to keep us safe at home.
I want our armed forces to be confident they make a difference and not doubt for one second the importance of their service. I want them to know they are appreciated. But what I want most for Christmas is their safety during their year-long journey.