A Christmas I'll Never Forget...

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
In just a few days, many of us will celebrate Christmas. As a nation, we have made this synonymous with the whole month of December, and declared this time of year "the Christmas season" or for some just simply "the holidays." But when your country is at war, for many it's a little harder to celebrate, as so many of our deployed members are about to understand.

We are truly blessed in this country to enjoy the freedom to make this season into something personal for our friends, families and communities. But this freedom has a price. While modern technologies are keeping us closer while we are deployed, our military members can have a vastly different Christmas experience.

As we wrestled with how to close out this year and craft the holiday message, the staff suggested I relay my favorite Christmas memory and highlight the military's perspective on a holiday season. I immediately thought of the first one I spent away from Rebecca in 1990.

At the time, Rebecca (then "Miss Smith") was teaching third grade, and her class and I were in a solid letter exchange. I so looked forward to those letters, even more than the box of goodies that typically accompanied the correspondence. This was just prior to Desert Storm and tension was rising every day.

But we were still weeks away from the first mission, and at the time, we had no idea what Jan. 14, 1991, would bring. We were still reeling from a crash where we lost a crew on a training mission. We bonded.

It was Christmas, and that was our focus. The kids were my outlet, and I thanked God for them!

Hi Kids!

It was great to get your letters. I have such fond memories of when I was in grade school. The world was quite a different place back then, but I can see from your letters that the basics in school are pretty much the same. I used to practice writing on the same kind of lined paper that you sent your letters on. If you are like me, you'll remember times like recess and lunch the most.

I wouldn't exactly be telling the truth if I told you this has been the greatest Christmas ever. Some days your strength to endure and overcome difficult situations is really put to the test. This Christmas is one of those times. I've been here for over four months now, and, as you can imagine, this isn't one of those places you want to get used to.

Then yesterday I looked in my "mail box" and guess what I found? That's right, all the wonderful stuff you sent me! You are the greatest. Nothing could have made my day any better. (Well, maybe a ticket home...) I had to fly a late mission, so I didn't get to watch the tape until about 4 a.m., but let me tell you it was more than worth the wait. That tape was great!! Miss Smith sent me some pictures, but nothing compares to "seeing" you in action.

I can't thank you all enough for letting me see your "hurry home" art project banner. The banner is a classic work of art. Who would have believed that something so beautiful could have come out of this dim situation? You made it happen.

Christmas can mean a lot of things to a lot of people and, as I can remember from when I was your age, it was always an exciting time. But in the expectation of "transformers," " ninja turtles," and "GI Joe," try hard not to lose sight of the real message of Christmas. It's a time for sharing, giving, caring and a time to remember that not everyone is as fortunate as we are in the United States. The attitudes you develop now will determine the shape of the world in the 21st century. Wouldn't it be great if the whole world could come together and celebrate Christmas without any poor people, hungry people or people lost in wars! You can make that happen.

But before that, you will be faced with challenges of your own. You have to decide right now not to let poisons like drugs, crime and hate ruin your life and those around you. I know you might find it hard to believe that you can make a difference, but I'm telling you, you are the most important people in the world! Many of the problems we face right now are the result of years of greed, lying, hate, jealousy and discrimination. You can start right now to end that problem. For the rest of your life, you will meet people who are different from you, in all kinds of ways. Your mission will be to accept them for who they really are--people just like you and me. That alone will make more of a difference than all of the armies any country has ever had

I am greatly indebted to your class for helping me through this difficult time. But I have something more to ask of you. The past few months have been months which required great patience. We have had this patience. These next few months will require great courage, strength and faith. It may be hard for you to understand, but you will need all of these traits as much as I will. There are rough waters ahead for all of us.

Through the next few months, never lose sight of your contribution to this effort. Until we have learned all the harsh lessons this conflict has to teach us, we will be far from solving it. You are a big part of that learning process. Only by studying and learning our history can we hope to avoid repeating it. I'm counting on you to take full advantage of the fantastic learning opportunities that, throughout history, Americans have given their all to secure for you. Without your hard work, their efforts will have been for nothing. Don't let a second of your time be wasted. America is depending on you for the 21st century. You can make it the first century without wars. But only if we are determined to never make the mistakes of the 20th century over again. If you think that there's really no way you can influence or solve the problems of countries half a world away, then don't forget that we have plenty of our own to solve. Our economy demands hard work, rich initiative, wild imagination and, most of all, a solid "can-do" attitude. Our local governments can't function without the pride and care of its citizens. Our law enforcement agencies are helpless without the cooperation of the citizens. And, of course, our military will never be effective without the constant support from the people they swore to defend. The attitudes you develop right now will make up the personality of the 21st century. President Bush has visions of a "kinder, gentler" nation. Right now you can choose those traits for yourselves.

Although we are all still praying and searching for a peaceful end to this crisis, the likelihood of that happening is very low. We are prepared to do our duty and carry out our missions. Many people will give their lives in this effort. It's up to you to make the choices that will ensure that they didn't give you their all in vain. I'm counting on you!

Regardless of the outcome of this crisis, I have thoroughly enjoyed my correspondence with all of you. I don't know how reliable the mail is going to be over the next few months. Don't be discouraged if you don't hear from me for a awhile. I can't thank you all enough for making my work worthwhile. Nothing could be more heartwarming than knowing that you'll be in my corner in the months ahead. With God's help, your cheering session will be short lived. Take care, and "God's Speed" to you all.

Your Friend,
Capt. Michael T. Panarisi

Maybe my hope for a 21st century free of wars was overly optimistic, but that doesn't diminish the dream. Those kids kept the dream alive for me, and I know the support of our nation made those Christmas seasons apart from our families bearable. We can never forget that.

As you participate in your own personal holiday celebrations, please take a moment and think about what this year's deployed members are facing, and what we can do from here to make their holiday memorable.

I wish you all a happy, healthy and safe holiday, and I'm excited about what next year will bring. Merry Christmas!