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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 29, 2007

Remember our soldiers at Christmastime

Keep the home-fires burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home....

— 1914, "Till the Boys Come Home,"
Lyrics by Lena Ford, music by Ivor Novello

The hearth is a symbol of home. "Keep the home-fires burning" was a popular sentiment in an earlier war.

Forest Byrd has drawn a heartwarming modern scene for the cover of our Christmas edition this week. A welcoming fire blazes in a well-kept home. Candles rest on the mantle shelf along with a Christmas card. Look closely, and you will see the American flag etched in one side of the mantle and the Iraqi flag on the other.

The stockings, as the classic Christmas poem puts it, are hung by the chimney with care. But the children are not nestled all snug in their beds. Some of them are on the other side of the world, fighting in an unpopular war. The visions dancing in their heads are not of sugarplums, but of mortars and car bombs.

Their pictures dominate the scene, rows and rows of them above the mantle — portraits of men and women in service. They serve in different branches; they are different races and different genders. Several salute. Many are backed by the American flag.

There are too many to fit on our cover. The portraits of sailors and soldiers and marines are hanging in a place of honor and we should cherish their service. Even if we do not agree with the war the United States is waging, we should be grateful there are Americans willing to risk their lives to serve their country.

Being away from home at Christmas is never easy. Being away because you’re at war is particularly cruel.

Several weeks ago, we read through a cache of letters that Altamont’s Ed Cowley had written home to his family during World War II. He had enlisted as an 18-year-old and served as an infantryman in Europe, fighting in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, including the Battle of the Bulge.

Before he left for Europe, Cowley wrote in 1943, "It’s Christmas night and I’ve just finished all my packing for tomorrow...Gee, it was great talking to you the other night....I could just see the Christmas tree with all the lights and trimmings and Dad sitting on the couch with a bottle of Ballantines. Kinda made me feel as though I were home again...."

Cowley writes the next fall from a foxhole in France, "I sure would like to be home this Christmas. Haven’t had a Christmas at home since that time we had to sneak the tree up and surprise you. Hope you have a tree this year as I don’t want anything to be any different than it ever was... I won’t be there this year and I might miss a couple more but I hope you don’t change the old Cowley tradition, which I think is unique. If people felt all year round the way they feel at Christmas, I don’t think we could have wars, but if we didn’t have wars, people wouldn’t appreciate peace so I guess it’s just an eternal cycle or something like that."

How do we feel at Christmas" The religious among us may feel the miraculous in celebrating the birth of a savior. Many of us feel the warmth that comes in gathering with friends and family, of giving and receiving gifts. We feel a sense of peace and goodwill towards all.

But for those fighting a war, such feelings must be elusive. Simple gifts can mean a lot. Cowley, still fighting in France, wrote to his family in November of 1944, "The company got five Christmas gifts for each platoon, 30 men. We drew to see who could get them and I didn’t...."

In December, Cowley wrote, "Sure would like to be home for next Xmas, but really don’t think any of us will make the States until ’46 or better...."

Later in December, he wrote, "Please don’t think about me not being home for Xmas as I’ll never be anyplace but home on Xmas. Dec. 25th is just another date to me over here and as far as I’m concerned Xmas 1942 was the only one we’ve had in three years."

Today’s soldiers can communicate more easily with the folks at home. When we spoke with Jeremy Rue before his Memorial Day speech in Knox two years ago, he said what was hardest for him was being away from home. Rue is a fifth-generation Hilltowner who served in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. "I live next door to my great-grandmother’s house," he said. "All of a sudden, I’m half-way around the world."

Rue said he took solace in having "a lot of pictures," a weekly phone call home, and receiving e-mail. "Compared to guys in a foxhole in World War II or in the jungles in Vietnam," he said, "we have a lot of contact with home."

We at The Enterprise offer a free subscription to anyone serving overseas who wants news from home. Just send an Army Post Office or Fleet Post Office address, and we’ll send you our newspaper.

Stephen Savino recently touched us when he wrote, "I am a member of the United States Air Force. However, my heart is still back home in Westerlo...I love reading your paper, and I know that, when I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, it has helped my morale." His e-mailed thanks meant the world to us: "I know that I can now go through every week, anticipating a bulletin from back home, and it sure does make things a little easier for me and my family."

Christmas still looms large for those serving away from home. "They really try to avoid thinking about it," said Dale Walts. He should know. Walts and his wife, Carol, have two daughters serving in the military; each is married to a soldier. Their son-in-law Michael Farmer is serving now in Iraq. "Christmas Day, he could be in the middle of a firefight for God’s sake," said Dale Walts.

The Waltses’ youngest daughter, Katie, has begun baking dozens of cookies to send. And Carol Walts has practical advice for Christmas packages to soldiers in Iraq. "First of all, it’s a dry country," she said of the Muslim country’s prohibition on liquor. "And chocolate melts," she added. Packages can include things like DVDs, magazines, and socks, the Waltses said.

You don’t have to be a family member to get involved in giving.

For years, Darlene Stanton, a leader in the auxiliary for the Boyd Hilton Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, has spearheaded a drive to send care packages to those serving overseas.

Each Christmas, the group sends 20 or 30 packages to local soldiers serving in the Middle East. Donations can be made at the Mill Street post in Altamont.

Stanton called Christmas "the hardest holiday" for soldiers to be away from home. "You want them to know we care," she said.

Think of the portraits hanging over the mantle as belonging to all of us, gracing our collective hearth. We may not recognize their faces or know their names, but they are ours nevertheless. Now is a good time to show you care.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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