Memories matter

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena, Professor
  • Air War College
All my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain..."
- from the song "In My Life"
by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

The journey back to Al Waleed, in Iraq's Al Anbar Province, took three days. Flying on various helicopters, usually with open doors and without windows, I was both frozen and exhausted. I had to get back to the most isolated outpost in that theater in time to share Christmas morning with the Soldiers who had become my family during the past six months. These were special people. Each had a story, and all had come to rely on each other for both safety and sanity.

After the Marine CH-46 landed and deposited its cargo - me - in the desert, my second-in-command and my Iraqi counterpart provided an update as we walked to the compound. Our outpost was nothing more than a dirt berm pushed up to protect against rocket-propelled grenades and small arms; but, on this cold, clear and beautiful night, it looked good to me.

Al Waleed was a border crossing site between Syria and Iraq. I did not like being away from my troops and the border, although it was a desolate, dangerous place. However, my periodic trips back to Baghdad ensured supplies and support would continue to arrive.

The conditions at Al Waleed were severe. There were no showers. Food and water were limited and sometimes scarce. Attacks from both local insurgents and from groups across the border were frequent. The only thing we had plenty of was ammunition and challenges.

It was Christmas Eve 2004, and I had made it back in time to wish the other nine Americans who lived, worked and fought in those extreme conditions a Merry Christmas. Walking into a worn Army tent that served as our command post and living quarters, I was greeted by a familiar smell. It was a dank, musty smell - a combination of wet canvas, desert, burning trash and unwashed bodies. I was home.

The tent was dimly lit, but I could just make out a small Christmas tree (really just a bush) with chemical lights hanging from its branches. The troops were gathered around exchanging stories and eating a Christmas dinner of MREs and T-rations.

While standing in the door of that tent, a feeling came over me, like a shiver and a little voice inside my head whispering, "You will remember this night." I was simultaneously creating and living a special memory. The troops were in a good mood, for they were making the best of a special night in hostile place.

Just as I was about to sit down, our Iraqi border guards - who were providing perimeter security - began to exchange fire with insurgents. No one spoke. We just moved to our fighting positions to help direct the fight. We had been through this many times. First, came the small arms attack and then the rockets. The fight did not last long. It was, however,
a reminder we were not alone, and much remained to be accomplished.

Early the next morning, Christmas Day, when all was quiet once again, we 10 Americans wished each other a Merry Christmas and tried to get a few hours of sleep. We did not exchange presents, for we had none. What we did exchange was trust, faith in each other and a memorable Christmas.

What are your holiday plans this year? If they do not include making memories with
people you care about, then, as a grizzled platoon sergeant of mine would say, "You
are wrong." For whether in good times or bad, the only thing that really matters is to
enjoy the people you are with and to make memories.

This year, my wife, son and I will spend Christmas together. We will make new memories, and we will enjoy each other's company. I am glad I am home, but late at night on Christmas Eve, when the family has gone to bed, I will step outside and for a few minutes will be back in a worn Army tent, dank and musty, and will remember 10 Americans who were family in a place called Al Waleed.