What Christmas at War Taught Me About Humanity and Faith

On Christmas Eve 2003 I stumbled about on drugs, contemplating life, and laughing at Robin Williams during a USO show

Photo courtesy of author and technically taken just after Thanksgiving | Author is on far right

*This is final essay in a series of articles on faith and spirituality. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 also available.

“SLEDGE!”

The door to the ramshackle tent flung open, ushering in a cold wind and Kandahar’s ever present moon dust. I looked to see who had called, but couldn’t muster the energy to move. Instead, I laid still on the ratty rug made of something that felt like sewn wax and polyester. Thirty minutes earlier I’d fallen over in my chair and never bothered to mount myself upright. Instead, I stared vacantly at the TV playing a bootleg copy of the final Lord of The Rings.

“Ah, hell,” the voice said upon entering the room and surveying the condition. “Hollywood is all fucked up again. Which one of you let him get into Caligula’s moonshine again?”

A head poked out from one of the curtain dividers that separated the rooms where people slept. “Not me! He’s just been sitting there watching TV for the past few hours. Probably took too many pills again.” Then the head disappeared behind the curtain like a magician pulling a disappearing act.

“Sledge?” Staff Sergeant Vestal hovered over me and tapped my face with his hand. The scene was ironic because earlier in the year, Vestal was the one who passed out. Someone had to give him a sternum rub to wake him when he blacked out. He’d been watching an amputation, and after they casually threw a leg in the trash, he went down for the count. I watched the same scenario play out with another solider the day I received my cast. I’d been lying in a janky hospital bed when a mass casualty of patients arrived. A young Afghan man lay stretched out on the table next to me, his lower leg mangled and shredded by shrapnel. Nurses would pad the gaping holes with gauze which would stifle the bleeding for a second and then ooze out once more. When the doctor realized they’d be unable save the man’s leg, they brought out the bone saw. You never forget the sound a bone saw makes when it connects with bone and tissue. I stared at the ceiling instead while they continued to cast my hand. The soldier near me remarked he needed to sit down but never made it to a bench. He made love to the floor with his face instead.

Vestal tapped me again. “Sledge?”
“Mmm? The weird one has the ring again.” I stated in a slurry voice.

My comment caught him between amusement and concern. “Can you stand? How are you feeling?”

I made a circular motion with my finger in the air. “Same as always. Nice little day for a war.”

“Shit,” he exclaimed. Then he stood and paced a few steps. Muttering to himself, he left the room and flung the door open once more to usher in the fine silt that coated everything from the TV to our pathetic Christmas tree in the corner.

I remained on the floor, then closed my eyes and fell asleep.

When I awoke, the room was buzzing with other soldiers. Word spread that comedian Robin Williams would arrive soon for a Christmas Eve USO show. Also making an appearance was General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hearing the news, I sat up and rubbed my eyes.

“HQ was looking to send soldiers to dinner with Williams and Meyers, but they wanted a valor recipient.” My team sergeant, Paul, jerked a thumb in my direction. “Hollywood was too lit on meds and Caligula’s hooch that there was no way we could put him in front of top brass like that.”

I shrugged in response, still groggy from the pain meds and the bit of moonshine I’d mixed to intensify the effect. War wasn’t so bad when you felt cheery and left the planet for a few hours. In fact, people always knew when I had taken my meds because they’d ask me how I was doing and I’d shuffle by in my cast and respond, “Nice little day for a war.”

Once Paul revealed I was no longer the guest of honor, the rest of the guys gave me hell for missing dinner with Mrs. Doubtfire. I still planned to catch the show, but when I asked who was going, sullen expressions and excuses punctuated the air instead of the excitement one would expect.

Deployed soldiers get mopey around Christmas. We listen to carols in silence while we chain smoke cigarettes or stuff pouch after pouch of chewing tobacco in our gums. Then we go to our individual “rooms” divided by poncho liners and grow introspective in the solitude. Rather than join the fun, many were planning on a quiet night, hoping to call home on our satellite phone.

I almost didn’t attend the show because I had no one to go with. But then I popped another pill and sauntered toward the gathering troops on Kandahar Air Field. I’d never seen Williams do stand-up, so I rationalized I needed to have a Bob Hope moment to tell the grandkids about one day.

“You see Johnny, granddad got blown up real good by the mooj and was sent back to recuperate. And I’ll tell ya what — I’ll be damned if Robin Williams didn’t show up on Christmas Eve!” I imagined myself withered and grey with my grandkids asking who the hell Robin Williams was as I continued to walk toward the stage with a red, white, and blue USO banner flapping in the wind. Other people stared as I passed, eyes drifting to the white cast on my arm that glared like a beacon amid the endless tan. Soldiers had already asked me what sport I’d been playing when I broke my wrist. Sometimes I was belligerent and told them “Hide and go seek with a 107mm rocket.” That never went over well with those who out-ranked me.

The people staring looked like they wanted to poke fun at a young kid they were certain hurt himself in a game of grab-ass, so I snuck past them and headed toward the Special Forces compound. Only special operations personnel were allowed in their section and I had orders from JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). I knew I wouldn’t get the prying eyes either since I’d served alongside a few of them out on the border. I acknowledged some of the gathering soldiers with a head nod, then hung back against a wall and waited for Williams to take the stage.

The cheers that erupted were deafening when William’s came out wearing a desert camo boonie hat. We hooted and hollered, just like old grunts did during the USO shows in our granddad’s era. Williams quickly went to task making fun of the Armed Forces for landing on a tarmac that still had landmines surrounding it. Midway through his routine, a group of green berets above me started shining a spotlight from their perch to snag William’s attention. Williams turned to the men and barked, “Oh look! The Special Forces!” Then he made a gruff voice and stated, “Don’t fuck with us, man. We got beards!” The crowd roared with laughter.

When the show came an end, I shuffled about, seeing if I could snag a photo with Williams. People continued to stare at the cast that snaked its way up my arm to the elbow. Because of the way my wrist broke, my fingers curled and my thumb stayed locked in a stationary position. It looked like I was giving everyone a thumbs up.

Realizing that I probably wouldn’t get a photo due to the size of the crowd, I turned to leave. That’s when a large man with an entourage stopped me.

“How’d you break your arm, son?”

When I turned toward the voice, I saw the four stars on the man’s collar and his grey hair. Then my eyes drifted to his name tape: M-Y-E-R-S. Shouldn’t have taken those pain meds before I left, I mentally noted.

You don’t salute superiors in a combat environment (snipers), but I’d never been in front of a four-star general either, so I assumed a stiff position of attention and barked out an enthusiastic response. “I was wounded in combat, sir!”

General Myers chuckled and was quick to follow with an “At ease, soldier.”

We chatted for a few moments, and he asked the standard questions — Where are you from? How are you doing? How did you get wounded? Before his entourage ushered him away, I asked for a photo. In the picture, I wear a goofy and lackadaisical expression because of the drugs I’d been on.

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Photo courtesy of author

When I returned to the hut where the rest of my unit stayed, Christmas music permeated the air. I removed my boonie hat, set down my rifle, and then collapsed into a lawn chair. Bing Crosby crooned that he’d be home for Christmas. I knew I wouldn’t. As the soulful lament continued, I wallowed in self-pity, thinking about what my family was doing. They were likely eating our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of fondue and twice-baked potatoes. I, however, wasn’t even sure if I’d eaten today. While I tried to remember what I’d eaten besides pills, Crosby sang Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. The music made my mood more foul — and wanting to avoid getting sucked into a black hole — I stood and retreated to my cot.

On my cot, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Christmas story — a baby in a manger and a poor, ostracized couple. People were such assholes they wouldn’t even give up their room for a pregnant woman. Instead, Mary has a baby out back and the first visitors were farm animals and shepherds. Sad.

Soon my eyes began to flutter as sleep beckoned, but before I drifted off I had the thought that at least Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could relate to the well of melancholy beginning to overwhelm me.

I often think about that depressing Christmas Eve in Afghanistan. Nowadays, the memory has a soft glow mixed with extremely complicated feelings. It was a time in my life when I was truly human, after all. Messy. Imperfect. And helplessly flawed. Maybe that’s why most people find war stories fascinating. All of one’s humanity is on display without apology. In my case, war caused such conflicting emotions that I was often uncertain of how to handle what I’d experienced, which led to a lot of self-medicating and depravity. Sometimes I look back and cringe at the person I was, hoping to have grown more as a human being.

And yet, one of the most baffling things about the Christmas story I reflected on that fateful evening is that Christianity holds God becomes human. In the self-help movement (of which I’m often a participant), the goal can be to transcend or suppress human emotions. For some religions, the goal can be enlightenment and leaving human nature behind. Then there’s the Christ figure whose beginnings are squalid and ending is violent. Throughout his life, he never distinguishes between the “good” and the “bad” or the sinner and the saint. Instead, he sympathizes with humans for — he too — understands what it is to be human.

Lutheran pastor and famed anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflected on this too. I don’t know what it is about hardship and loneliness during the holidays that causes many to reflect on the Christmas story. Perhaps it’s because of our maudlin demeanor that we empathize with the story. Like my Christmas Eve away from family, Bonhoeffer spent a few away from his. Only he did so from a Nazi prison cell. During that time he wrote:

“God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to be human — really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction… He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”

The scenario Bonhoeffer and the Christian faith present is so ludicrous it’s laughable. For most of my life I, too, would find Christianity laughable but for other reasons than the ones stated. I thought the faith was absurd because it revolved around power, wealth, and manipulating a sky genie. Though I was told to “love my enemies,” I hated them because that’s what I saw emulated often from a pulpit where pastors became political talking heads. Human nature either made you a hero or a monster, and I could only see the demons lurking in a man’s heart. War will do that to you I guess; make you second guess humanity.

Yet, when you get to the crux of the Christmas, God comes to humans as human as possible — in diapers. Someone has to feed him, burp him, change him and they lay him in a feed trough (manger is just a pretty word for it). Not long after he ends up as a refugee in Egypt. For as sad as my Christmas was in Afghanistan, it appears he took his own dose of the human condition. That beginning alone is enough to make you despise your fellow man and the selfishness that tromps around in our hearts. Instead, it has an opposite effect.

Throughout his life, Christ hangs around people like me. It would appear the messier they are, the better. There are prostitutes, thieves, slave traders, and the lower echelons of humanity in which he’s repeatedly condemned for associating with. One could wager that there had to be a lot of foul language and debauchery amid the parties he attended. Unlike his religious counterparts, he soaks in the entire human experience along with aspects of humanity people write off.

That’s why in the middle of a war, the Christmas story began to speak to me. Over the years, the more the story beckoned I realized it was not a set of rules and behavioral modification as I had learned. Yet, that’s the message so many claim and they mislead the masses by teaching his kingdom is one of power, influence, and prestige. Instead, the Christmas story is about a divine human being who had great hope for his messy people.

And that continues to be his message today.

**Portions of this essay are excerpts from my upcoming war memoir and novel

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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