02 January 2012

The Sweater That Saved Christmas

It seems every Christmas story involves the following ingredients:
- 1 widow/widower
- 1 child who has lost belief in Santa
- 1 very superficial businessman/woman
-  1 reason for them to be stuck together over the holidays – usually involving weather
Mix it together and the end product is they fall in love and realize the true meaning of Christmas.

Well our Christmas here in Kandahar had none of the above.  But we did have a sweater that saved Christmas!

It all began on a rainy day in November while I was on vacation visiting home and running a marathon.  In Kandahar, the USO center was ravaged by a flash flood.  I was busy sipping margaritas by the pool with my Grams while our center was about 6 inches under muddy water that to put nicely was not hygienic.  The floors floated up, and washed away, and the connexes that had all of our decorations flooded as well.  While the quick thinking staff managed to save most of the furniture and spent countless hours mopping up and cleaning up the entire center, it still didn’t quite have that “home away from home” feeling when I returned. 

Erin, my roomie/friend/coworker has the most unbreakable, relentless spirit I have ever met.  She immediately had her parents send her Christmas decorations and she transformed our center into a Winter Wonderland.  Randy, my other roomie/friend/coworker took something as simple as empty priority mail boxes and began wrapping them to assemble a HUGE present tree.  Now our center had the look of Christmas, but still not the feel.

I felt the Christmas spirit for about 15 minutes every day when we would pile up the car with stockings stuffed with goodies and knock on MRAP and Stryker doors giving out the stockings to soldiers preparing for convoys.  They were always so appreciative – I’m not sure if was actually for goods in the stockings, for the sight of the first females in months, or that someone remembered them on Christmas.  They would grin from ear to ear and then immediately begin trading candy like it was 2nd grade lunch.  I loved that when we looked at the boxes that some of the stockings came in, they were from Boatsies Boxes operating out of Wheeling, WV!  My hometown made Christmas possible out here.  But besides those few moments, Christmas was largely absent from our lives.  Even a Christmas party for Role 3 that promised to be fun, was interrupted by a rocket attack.  Who invited the Taliban to Christmas anyway?!

With convoys going out every day to take Christmas to the troops at forward operating bases the back of our center became a storage facility of large cardboard boxes and endless care packages.  Upstairs was a virtual Santa’s workshop with boxes everywhere that were sorted with care package items in them, and an never ending stack that needed to be sorted.  It was a good problem to have though, because the amazingly generous people back home sent $83,445 worth of goods!  Although we were super excited about all the goodies coming in, the work involved to organize and pack the items was stressful and time consuming.  Christmas was slipping through our fingertips and it seemed no one cared to mind.

Months before Christmas our boss came up with the idea to have an Ugly Christmas Sweater party, and had USO Fort Riley back in the states send some.  We put them out on Christmas eve thinking oh haha it’d be funny.  After some gentle encouragement from the USO gals soldiers began donning the hideously tacky sweaters.  It looked like Bill Cosby’s closet from 1985 was on the back of every soldier.  They were wearing sweaters that were 2 sizes too big, or 2 sizes too small, sweaters that were obviously made for females, sweaters that had color combinations straight from the 80s…and they were rocking it out.  What began as us begging one soldier to put on a sweater spread into every soldier in the center searching the table for just the right one. 

Our winner for his sweet moves
Justin, my coworker came up with the idea to have a fashion show.  We scrounged up some gift cards and announced the competition.  What unfurled was the single most hilarious event I have ever seen.  Randy, Erin, Jillian and I sat up stools at the end of the catwalk to judge our competitors.  The Airforce band that came to play a live set later in the night immediately took their places and began playing songs like “Walk This Way” and “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”  The first soldier “model” set the stage by doing what can only be explained as sashaying down the catwalk and striking a fierce pose.  What followed included the moonwalk, soldiers blowing us kisses, giving us presents, skipping hand in hand, shaking their bootys, and breakdancing.  Everyone was doubled over laughing.  We crowned two winners, one for his smooth moves, and one for how awesomely hideous his sweater was.  After the competition, they didn’t take them off.  They continued to wear the sweaters as the Role 3 (the trauma hospital on base) choir sang, one of our amazing volunteers JD spread Christmas cheer as Santa, desserts were eaten, garland relays were conducted and Christmas movies were played.  When a troop walked in the front door their face would instantly light up as you saw them trying to figure out why everyone had hideous sweaters on over their camis.  Christmas Day was delightfully awesome too with us handing out gifts to every troop that walked through our doors.  We also stalked the boardwalk and gave out stockings to everyone there.  It concluded with a Skype session with my parents and sister to open up the presents they sent, and the ones I sent them.

The soldier far right won for picking the most hideous sweater

My new recipe for a Christmas story:
-       1 team of dedicated morale boosters
-       Countless people back home who love and care about us enough to send numerous care packages
-       Hundreds of funny troops
-       Some ugly sweaters
-       1 reason for them to be stuck together over the holidays - war
Mix it together and the end product is they have a good time and realize the true meaning of Christmas.
Santa making them earn their presents

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