It was Christmas, so I called home. That may not sound like much, but after the day I had just had, it was everything in the world to me.
I had woken up that morning in my bunkbed made of plywood and 2×4′s, in a bombed out hotel room in Sarajevo, Bosnia. There was no running water, and we only had electricity for lights at night… but I was used to all that. I had been there three months, and that little room I shared with 5 other guys had become homey, if not exactly home.
After putting on my U.S. Army uniform and having breakfast in the British Army chowhall that was in the lobby of the building, I and my cup of English Breakfast Tea began our Christmas… just another day as a NATO Peacekeeper. I never went outside in the morning without that hot tea… it was as important to crossing the streets covered in feet of snow as my boots. Besides, British Army Coffee is horrible.
As I was just getting ready to make the turn into the secure compound of cargo containers turned into offices, I felt something hard hit me in the side of the head. Reacting as a soldier, I quickly dove for cover behind a berm on the side of the road, and a good thing to. The next weapon that came my way would have hit me square in the chest had I not hit the ground.
I raised myself above the berm and returned fire… and my snowball hit the dastardly British soldier who had gotten me with a sneak attack! Snowballs were flying all around, as perhaps a hundred British, American, Czech, Russian, and French soldiers spent their Christmas morning in the largest, and best tactically trained snowball fight in history.
After many snowballs sent and received, I finally made it into my office, I was ready for a quiet day. My job as an intelligence analyst was to keep track of the military forces of Serbia, Croatia, and of the three sides that had been at war in Bosnia. I also watched the political events in and around the country, and helped develop information to catch individuals who were wanted for or charged with War Crimes related to the Bosnian Genocide.
It was a good job, and sometimes a hard job. I was looking forward to a Christmas day of sitting in my office, going through the motions, watching a movie, and maybe, just maybe, using some of that multi-million dollar communications equipment to place a slightly questionable call home that evening. After all, what could happen, Christmas is a day of peace… and I was a peacekeeper.
But as I sat at my computer screens, things began to seem not so peaceful at all. There was a contested piece of land, one that both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats had claimed. It was a near worthless peninsula, but people have died over near worthless pieces of land countless times. We began to realize that the Serbs and the Croats… both Christian peoples… were seeing if, while NATO was distracted by the holiday, they could occupy that small strip of land.
If that happened, the war might kick off again… on Christmas Day… the day of peace.
It was a tense twelve hours, as military units began moving from their bases, converging on that small piece of land. We quickly put some peacekeepers on the ground on that peninsula, ground that was freezing cold and covered with snow. My team did amazing work, as we prepared the information that our commanders needed to move the chess board pieces into the right places.
In the end, after one of the hardest and most frightening days of my military career, the Bosnian Serb and Croat military units went home to their families, having decided that NATO was not so distracted after all, and that taking that little piece of land was just too expensive.
It was two o’clock in the morning, no longer even Christmas, when a friend handed me my Christmas day beer. I was tired, exhausted, my nerves were shot… and I was just a little disappointed in humanity. To use this day of peace, this one day of the year when we celebrate the life and teachings of a man dedicated to peace, to use this day for military operations that might re-launch a horrific war disheartened me.
Tired in more ways than one, I crawled into the back of one of our multi-million dollar satellite communications trucks. I knew it would be empty, everyone was at one of the holiday parties or was asleep. I picked up the receiver and fiddled dials till I was connected with someone else working Christmas Day… At CIA Headquarters in Langley Virginia.
“Could you connect me to an outside line”? I asked, a little hopefully.
Whoever it was must have been feeling some of the Christmas Spirit, because they laughed and offered to dial for me. As the line clicked over to the number I gave him, he said, “Merry Christmas, Soldier.”
The phone was answered by my Aunt Theresa, in Knoxville Tennessee, at my family’s annual Christmas gathering. You see, it was still Christmas there. After a warm and hearty greeting and a few minutes of conversation with my Aunt, the phone was passed to my mother, then my sisters, then my grandfather, then other aunts, cousins, uncles and assorted relations. Each conversation was the same “Where are You? Where is That? When are you coming home? How much snow is there?”, then “David, we miss you, and you come home safe”.
I had just seen a war almost begin on Christmas Day. I was living in the middle of a country torn by religious warfare. I had begun to lose faith in humanity… That phone call, home to my family on Christmas Day, was the most important phone call of my life. And every Christmas, whether I am home or away, my Aunts and Cousins call me and remind me of the Christmas when I called home from the war.
What could be more important than a call of, a call for Christmas Peace.
This Homily was preached as a part of the 2007 Christmas Eve Service at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL. It was presented again in the 11PM Christmas Eve Service in 2011 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, CA
Yours in Faith,