“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, God with us. … Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” — George Frideric Handel, “Messiah”
WASHINGTON — This magnificent musical work penned by Handel in 1741 is heard all around the world in this season. His powerful lyrics are drawn directly from the Bible and remind us all to be thankful for the birth, sacrifice and resurrection of the Lamb of God.
In our family Christmas tradition, Handel’s oratorio is performed at our Christmas Eve church service. The following morning, we play it in the background as our children — and now a dozen grandchildren — rip into their presents around a carefully decorated Scotch pine. Each time I hear it, the music prompts me to be grateful for the Prince of Peace — and thankful for those whose selfless service makes it possible for us to enjoy this celebration in tranquility.
The Christmas season is rarely a holiday for Americans serving in uniform — or their families waiting anxiously at home. George Washington led the Continental Army on a perilous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas in 1776. A year later, the tiny force barely survived the privations of winter at Valley Forge, Pa.
Throughout World War II, the birth of Christ was anything but a celebration. Wake Island fell two days before Christmas in 1941. The following year, American troops were taking heavy casualties in North Africa and Guadalcanal. For U.S. soldiers battling their way up the Italian Peninsula and the Marines and sailors at Rabaul and Cape Gloucester, Christmas of 1943 was miserable. On Christmas Day in 1944, the 101st Airborne was surrounded at Bastogne.
During the Korean War, every Christmas season was a “living, frigid hell” right from the start. On the first Christmas Eve we were there (in 1950), U.S. and Republic of Korea troops completed the evacuation of Hungnam and saved the lives of more than 90,000 refugees. Every Christmas in Vietnam was a lonely test of courage and perseverance. Little has changed today.
While we’re warm and surrounded by loved ones on Christmas morning, the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province and the 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th BCT in Nangarhar province are battling a vicious enemy and bitter cold. Their 101st Air Assault comrades of 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT in Kandahar province are having a somber commemoration in memory of their mates who lost their lives this month. More than a dozen members of the 101st Airborne have been killed in action since Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, their families at Fort Campbell, Ky., observe the holiday without their soldiers.
As we settle down to Christmas dinner, it will be pitch-dark and bitterly cold in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Some of the Marines deployed there from II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C., I MEF at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and III MEF in Kaneohe, Hawaii, and Okinawa, Japan, will get a hot meal. But thousands of others will be in harm’s way on lonely outposts or on patrols with their Afghan counterparts hunting Taliban insurgents intent on killing infidels. These Marine units have suffered more than 40 killed and wounded this month. Earlier this week, a chaplain circulated an e-mail to retired Marines and our families asking us to pray for 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment — “Dark Horse” — because it has taken so many casualties.
Christmas also would be a good time to pray for American troops in Iraq. Though we were told “combat operations” ceased in Mesopotamia on Aug. 31, the enemies of freedom haven’t stopped fighting. The soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment — the “Wolfhounds” — of the 25th Infantry Division at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, the aviation brigade from Fort Riley, Kan., at Camp Taji and the National Guardsmen at Joint Base Balad would appreciate our supplication on their behalf. And in Wasit province, Iraq, soldiers of the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas, are mourning one of their own — Pfc. David Finch — killed just days ago by enemy fire.
If you have read this far, don’t stop now. We have Air Force expeditionary units at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan; the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) battle group in the Arabian Sea; the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) battle group in the western Pacific; and Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 and more than 300 other service members of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti. And don’t forget the 42,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Korea and off the coast.
That’s just the short list of those who won’t be home this holiday. Handel could not have had them in mind when he composed “Messiah.” Yet every time I hear his beautiful tribute at this time of year, I remember those who place themselves at risk for the rest of us. Praying for America’s heroes and their families to Handel’s Messiah and mine makes a wonderful gift. Merry Christmas.