Brothers in arms: Christmas in the military

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From the perspective of a civilian, institutions like the United States Military Academy at West Point are places where traditions live forever.

Army Captain Joseph Lapointe, whose primary ties to Maine exist in the heart of a proud aunt, graduated from West Point in 2008. According to Lapointe, “Freshmen [also called “Plebes”] would decorate each table in the dining hall, sometimes trying to outdo each other, in anticipation of the feast that would be served before they all left for Christmas.”

At dinner, cadets would present each other with gag gifts and after dinner all would gather outside on the apron – an open space adjacent to the parade grounds – to smoke cigars.

Outside of the historic walls of our military academies, however, and for those who began their military careers by other methods, the realities of life both on base and during war and peacetime deployments interfere with the old and are cause for the creation of new traditions.

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Retired Army National Guard Mark Cater started his career with the Army and finished it with the Guard. During the course of his career, Cater spent the holidays in both Germany and Colorado.

“Being away from your family and your traditions is tough, [but] you make your own traditions,” he said. “Depending on the base, each unit or battalion would have a Christmas Party; sometimes it was a dress up affair and sometimes not.”

Back in Maine with the National Guard, Cater spent several years helping to run a Family Assistance Center Program called “Christmas Across Maine.”

“Christmas Across Maine,” he explained, “is a need-based program for military families, whether deployed or home [sponsored by] businesses and individuals from across the state.”

Sponsors anonymously adopt families, and each is given a wish list. Representatives from the Guard deliver the gifts to the families. “Sponsors throughout the state – from a small business owner in Houlton to a family in Brunswick — are amazing,” said Cater.

“In the last three years we’ve had well over 100 military families served,” said Cater. The “Christmas Across Maine” program has been a local tradition for 12 to 15 years and each year has served between 60 and 110 families. Anyone interested in sponsoring a family this year should call 1-888-365-9287.

“The United State Marine Corp,” said Retired Major infantry officer John Dulmage, “is steeped in tradition, and on November 10 of this year celebrated its 239th birthday,” he said proudly.

According to Dulmage, “When we’re away, the person to our left and to our right is our family, [and] we celebrate the day with our brothers and sisters in the Marines.” Although, on Christmas, he said, “Headquarters made every effort to have Skype capabilities available so that those deployed could talk with loved ones” back home.

Carolyn Cutting and Ray Michaud are both retired Air Force.

According to Cutting, “Like other branches, the Air Force is a very tight community.”

Cutting’s first Christmas in the Air Force occurred while she was away at basic training. “In the military, you’re working 24/7, and that first holiday wasn’t much of a celebration,” she said.

“The lines between family and friends blur,” said Cutting, “and during the holidays, when we’re alone, we build new traditions.”

She added that “the military realizes how important family is, and how important it is for recreation, and so the Air Force has a Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department” that, with the support of the community, provides tickets to events and other ways for servicemen and women to enjoy themselves during the holidays and other times of the year.

For those who are deployed, said Cutting, “They get care packages.”

Michaud, who was deployed as part of Desert Shield/Desert Storm during the Christmas season added, “It was fun getting care packages from family and friends [in the States], and also from anonymous people,” including the entertaining cards they received from elementary school children.

“When we were deployed, the leadership was focused on keeping morale up and so on Christmas morning 1990, they had a ‘hash run,’ called ‘tough mudders’ in the States, with trails and obstacles. That’s how we started the day,” he said, “and at the end there was a celebration and everybody who participated got a T-shirt” with a drawing of Santa in his sleigh flying over the island of Diego Garcia, where they were stationed, that read “Run Your Jingle Bells Off.”

“I had that T-shirt for years,” he said with a laugh.

“After the hash run, there was a big meal in the dining hall and the base leadership came in to serve the troops. It was a nice touch,” he said, although “it was a tough time to be away [and] I knew what I was missing.”

John Wagner, Retired Navy, said that although “the Navy likes to schedule deployments around the holidays,” there were still things like Christmas trees sent for on board the ships. “We had a home port, where things [packages and gifts] could be sent for delivery to the ships, and the USO always had groups that went out to the ships.”

During his deployments, Wagner got to see shows by several professional football cheerleading squads, entertainer Bob Hope and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Back at base, around the holidays, parties were “put on by the Welfare Recreation Committee, under the Command Services Department, at a local hotel, and were always well attended with lots of door prizes,” he said. “People would get all dressed up, and families were welcome.”

Although the Coast Guard is not represented here, the common thread amongst these branches of our military stitches together a tapestry of mutual support and a camaraderie which buoys those who devote their lives to serving our country during times when they are away from their children and parents, husbands and wives. Perhaps Dulmage said it best: “Brothers in arms are their own family.”

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