For some, it's the best time of the year. For some it's the worst. You see, for some they will be spending Christmas at home with their families - and some will be away from home.
Away, serving their country overseas. Whether that is in the Falkand Islands, one of the small detachments in the Gulf, on board a ship somewhere or in the very worst place...Afghanistan. There will be over 10,000 men and women of the British Armed Forces away from home. And then there will be men and women on duty over Christmas back here...The defence of the realm never rests...
But this year, thankfully, I am one of the lucky ones. I will be at home for Christmas, but I have had the (mis)fortune to spend two Christmasses away from home - one in Saudi Arabia, the other in Italy. The only thing that would have made my deployment to Afghan this year worse and harder would have been it being over Christmas. But of the two I did spend away, each one was different, but then remarkably the same.
Firstly, there is the obvious countdown to the day itself, but not in the way you'd expect. You just want it over. It becomes a milestone to be achieved and climbed over, rather like climbing to the top of a mountain. Getting to the top is a struggle, but once you have got to the top, you have done the worst bit. You have battled through but then you can slide down the other side; at times it can be difficult and tricky, but in terms of time you are on the home run - no matter when Christmas came in your deployment; near the start, in the middle or towards the end - you have done the hard thing and have the run downhill home. In essence it defines your tour. You are away for Christmas...not away from October until March. Not going away in December. You are going away for Christmas.
And then there is the day itself. With a bit of planning you will have already worked out the time difference home and realised when is a good time to call - if you can - but then there is the fact that pretty much every one else deployed to the same location as you will be trying to call...and the welfare facilities will be a bit stretched. Out in Afghan the Sat Phones will be their usual frustrating selves, so it would be wise to phone early (although the time difference is some four and a half hours ahead of the UK), as they will quickly get over loaded and try and cut you off...it's often easier to email back home, or else the ubiquitous Facebook messaging will just about allow your messages through.
That is of course as long as there isn't an Op Minimise on, which means that there has been a serious UK casualty or death and so all communications with the UK are cut. These are an irregular occurrence, and are of course bad news for both sides, firstly it means someones life has been either sadly ended or else been dramatically changed in an instant. Secondly, it means your ability to contact home is shut off. Bad news all round. It would be a very sad Christmas Day out in theatre to have a Minimise on. Sad because someone at home who is having an equally tough time - with a loved one away - is about to find out bad news. And a real hit to morale out there.
But it's not all bad and hard and difficult. There are a few high points. Of course Afghan is a dry country (in more ways than one!) and there is no alcohol allowed. But when I was in Italy, at least it was allowed for us to have a beer and a drink to celebrate the day. I vividly remember the Christmas lunch that was laid on for us by the Chefs out there - a fantastic feast of traditional fayre. Just as you would expect your mum to make (but with a sprouts just a little bit more bullet-like).
But there is a twist. You see it is military tradition that for the Christmas meal, Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers serve the meal to the junior ranks. In as posh as a set of uniform as possible. We don't take our Number 1 dress uniforms out to Afghan, but instead, well, if you can't go posh, then you go Fancy Dress...so it'll be as close to a party atmosphere as possible. Quite often such events degenerate in the way you imagine they do...
But none of this makes up for the fact that you are away from your loved ones. You are dislocated from your nearest and dearest and your usual traditions are on hold. It's a good attempt at making it as fun as possible, but it's just not the same. It's just not good enough. But it is as good as you are going to get...As ever, with any deployment away, your life is on hold. It's marking time until you return. And when your deployment involves Christmas it always feels like it's a long time until the day comes, but then the time can move on and eventually, once you return, your life can move on.
But in the end, it is part of the job. Part of the life. Part of what you signed up for. You miss home and you miss your family, but it is just another part of your life in uniform. They...sod it..We choose to do it. As mad and as crazy as it is, even though we know what it is all about, and what it is like, we choose to do it over and over again; because, even though it's the worst, for some reason that you can't quite place or put your finger on, it's also the best of times. And it's that best, that bloody brilliant, but unfathomable best of being away, with your mates, doing something amazing, somewhere amazing that means we put up with it and are willing to do it again.
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