‘Don’t Ever Forget’: An 18th Consecutive Christmas at War
American troops have been deployed to combat zones on every Christmas Day since 2001.
War is hell. Especially on Christmas.
Don’t take it from me. Read the words of a Gold Star wife who lost her soulmate on Christmas Day.
“Every day is a constant reminder of what I had, what I was going to have, and what is no more,” Nikki Altmann told me about three months after her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann, was killed in action.
I checked in with Nikki this week to see how she’s holding up during this difficult time of year. In keeping with her husband Joe’s selfless spirit, the Army widow put the pain of other Gold Star families ahead of her own.
“Grieving because we miss our loved ones is different for everyone,” explained Nikki, who last spoke to her husband on Christmas Eve in 2011.
Tuesday will mark the sixth Christmas since Nikki’s beloved Joe was killed in Afghanistan. It will also mark the 18th since the U.S. military went to war following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I can’t believe it’s been 18 years,” Nikki wrote.
Indeed, heroic American families like the Altmanns have been shouldering the burdens of war for almost two decades. Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, but U.S. service members are also fighting in Iraq. Troops are also in Syria, where they still face danger despite a pending withdrawal. Countries like Yemen, Somalia and Niger are also danger zones for our brave men and women in uniform.
At this hour, 21-gun salutes are still echoing through American towns mourning four fallen patriots killed less than a month ago in Afghanistan. Despite the conflict’s clear and present impact, the vast majority of our country is no longer on a war footing. President Trump and the mainstream media may despise each other, but when it comes to failing to amplify our military community’s ongoing sacrifices, they share equal blame.
Just before 9/11, the lead character of television’s most influential show at the time, The Sopranos, told his son that “the Army hardly ever goes to war anymore” in its May 20, 2001, season finale. No one, including the show’s brilliant writers, could have predicted that nearly 7,000 U.S. troops would be killed in more than 17 subsequent years of constant conflict.
When the war in Afghanistan started, our country’s 45th commander-in-chief was more than two years away from hosting The Apprentice. Facebook and Twitter, where you probably clicked on the link to this column, did not exist. Apple was more than five years away from inventing the iPhone. Taylor Swift was preparing to celebrate her 12th birthday.
You get the point. For those still paying attention, America’s post-9/11 conflicts feel like they’ve lasted forever. For America’s military community, however, time is eclipsed by a greater purpose.
“It is a timeless and cherished honor to serve in our country’s armed services,” said Jennie Taylor, who lost her husband, Maj. Brent Taylor, in November. “That honor has been Brent’s since he served in the Utah National Guard for the past 15 years, and it has been mine for just as long as I have proudly stood by his side.”
I thought of Nikki Altmann while watching Jennie Taylor deliver those poignant remarks after her husband’s flag-draped casket arrived at Dover Air Force Base. How does America consistently produce such strong, valiant patriots like Nikki, Joe, Jennie and Brent?
After a decade of searching, I have yet to find an answer. Instead, I simply marvel at their courage while striving to help tell as many of their stories as possible.
Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and – in following Christ’s example – giving to others. It is also about honoring and praying for those who are willing to sacrifice their lives so the rest of us can enjoy the holidays in relative peace.
With America still at war, the gold stars on top of millions of Christmas trees carry an even deeper meaning. They represent the thousands of Gold Star families who might have an empty spot at the dinner table, but whose hearts will always be filled with the cherished moments they shared with their heroes.
“My advice for families: don’t ever forget. Keep their spirit alive by living life,” Nikki wrote. “During the holidays think of them, cry for them and smile for them.”
As we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones and pray for those who can’t do the same, let us also heed a young military widow’s poignant advice to fellow Gold Star families. Live life, but don’t ever forget.
Christmas will never be the same for Nikki Altmann, but one constant will always remain. Her husband is in heaven proud of her, and so are we.
Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is co-author of three books about military heroes: 8 Seconds of Courage, Brothers Forever and Fire in My Eyes. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo.