How to celebrate Christmas while deployed, according to combat veterans

Dodging minefields to cut down a Christmas tree is always an option.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
Santa decoration surrounded by concertina wire.
A decorative Santa Clause is seen nestled into constantine wire at the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, Southwest Asia, Dec. 23, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Benjamin Wilson.)

While Santa is flying around, dropping down chimneys, our country’s defenders are breaching a door somewhere and taking out bad guys. Just like the O.G. American raider George Washington and his surprise Christmas attack, American service members have almost always found a way to enjoy the holidays while deployed.

When you are in the middle of nowhere-istan it may be hard to celebrate, but don’t ever doubt the ingenuity of Americans when it comes to celebrating holidays. We wanted to hear some of those stories, so we talked to three combat veterans about their Christmas celebrations while deployed — we were not disappointed. 

As you enjoy the holidays, raise a toast to every servicemember overseas, away from their loved ones, so we can enjoy time with ours.

Christmas trees and minefields in Afghanistan

Ilene Henderson served in the U.S. Army, National Guard, and Reserves over the course of a 21-year-long career, including an assignment to the first provincial reconstruction team to enter Afghanistan during her deployment in 2003. As Christmas day approached, Henderson decided they needed a Christmas tree. 

They were in Gardez, Afghanistan, and didn’t know where to find one, so they consulted with the Afghan partner force at their firebase. An old Afghan warfighter who had fought both the Soviets and the Taliban, Commander Gul, was just the guy they needed.

“The funny thing was trying to explain to Commander Gul what a Christmas tree was and that we just didn’t want a regular tree,” Henderson said. “We wanted an evergreen tree. […] So we drew him a picture of a Christmas tree with a person standing next to it and explained to him that this is what we’re looking for.”

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They filed the proper paperwork and received approval to leave the wire but had to stay within a 15-kilometer radius of the firebase. 

With Commander Gul by their side, they searched for hours until they encountered a group of viable Evergreen trees. 

“I mean, you would have thought we had found Usama bin Laden at that point,” Henderson recalled. “that’s how excited we all were.”  

But as Henderson and her team approached the tallest tree, Commander Gul started yelling “bad rocks” at her. Rocks painted red by locals marked potentially active minefields that hadn’t been cleared yet. 

“You could see some rocks painted red, outlining a no-go area,” Henderson said.

Ilene Henderson has an undying determination to maintain Christmas cheer wherever she is. (Photos courtesy of Ilene Henderson)

Thankfully, the red rocks were beyond the tree they identified. It was missing limbs toward the bottom, but the top five feet of it was pristine Christmas tree material. They cut it down and brought it back to the firebase. 

When Christmas day arrived, a local Afghan band with their traditional instruments showed up on Christmas day as a show of support for the U.S. military. After being searched and cleared by Commander Gul and Henderson’s team, the band played for them all in a plywood building on the firebase. A traditional Christmas supper was served, and they all enjoyed each other’s company around the hard-earned Christmas tree. 

Rangers bring Christmas cheer to Iraq

Task & Purpose’s Marty Skovlund Jr. served in the Army for eight years, with much of that time spent at 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, where he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. 

Rangers are known for their kill-or-capture raids and their stunning good looks, but not so much for their Christmas decorating skills. During a 2008 deployment to Iraq, Skovlund and his fellow Ranger and roommate Kevin Ryan took advantage of a care package sent by Skovlund’s then-fiance. 

A photo of Rangers on their way to their target on Christmas night in 2008. (Courtesy photo/Marty Skovlund Jr.)

The package was massive, containing garland, lights, and several other Christmas decorations. Then, another care package arrived; this time, it was a gingerbread house. 

“We were really busy that deployment,” Skovlund said. “We were going out almost every night and were basically covering the entire country of Iraq, so we didn’t exactly have time to do a ton of decorating. But, we got all this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Okay, fuck it. We got it. Let’s use it.’”

Skovlund and Ryan went all out. They built and decorated the gingerbread house in the common area the Rangers shared and decked the whole barracks area out with Christmas decorations. It was above and beyond what any reasonable person would have expected for combat festivities in Iraq but made for great memories. It was a Christmas celebration that stands out to Skovlund to this day.

A Special Forces camel shoulder for Christmas dinner

Sgt. 1st Class Adam Klakowicz has spent the better part of his last 20 years in the Army as a Green Beret. Out of his several deployments worldwide, his most prominent Christmas memory comes from his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. 

Christmas isn’t a holiday that many Afghans celebrate if any at all. However, one of the Afghan interpreters working with Klakowicz’s team wanted to contribute to the Christmas celebration. That contribution came via a cut of meat from a massive camel shoulder.

“When they started cooking that camel shoulder, we didn’t know what they were up to,” Klakowicz said. “It smells different but good. When we ate it, it was like a cross between a really in-shape turkey and juicy venison — just a little gamey. It was just a unique experience.” 

One of the Afghan chefs who prepared the camel shoulder for the ODA’s Christmas meal. (Photo courtesy of Adam Klakowicz.)

That Christmas dinner ranks high for  Klakowicz’s holiday celebrations. The ODA, support personnel, their Afghan allies, and a few German soldiers joined together for the meal. 

“It was like one of them renaissance fairs. When you go into the hall of a medieval king, and the centerpiece is this 40-pound camel shoulder. It was like a Viking hall of heroes of different people from around the world sitting together at the table for a Christmas dinner.”

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