81. In Service

81. In Service

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

In Service

The ornaments of your house will be the guests who frequent it.

~Author Unknown

My father left the decision up to me, my mother cried when I told her, and I stood my ground. It was the 1960s, and the beginning of a new decade filled with hope and optimism. When President John F. Kennedy announced he intended to strengthen the military, I answered the call. Shortly after I turned eighteen, I enlisted in the United States Air Force.

I completed the aptitude tests, passed the physical and in September 1961, just months prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was scheduled to begin training. When my departure date arrived, I took the oath of allegiance at the induction center, shook my father’s hand, hugged my mother, who seemed to have adjusted well to my leaving, and shipped off to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base, also known as the “Gateway to the Air Force.” It was the same training center that all Air Force enlistees attend before they are sent to their first assignment. It was 1,500 miles from home and I was alone.

It wasn’t until Christmas approached that I realized how much a holiday with family meant to me. It was my first time away from home and I missed my parents, relatives, friends and the celebrations and festivities that accompanied Christmas. My only solace was knowing I was not the only lonely airman. There were thousands of others around the world just like me.

Fortunately, the Base and Squadron Commanders understood how lonely single airmen felt being away from home for the first time, especially at Christmas, and took action to make the holidays as pleasant as possible. They encouraged military families to invite single airmen into their homes for a Christmas meal in a family setting. However, not everyone was able to get an invitation because of the large numbers of trainees compared to the number of families that could open their doors to us. I was one of the lucky ones, and the experience left me with profound memories.

The program soon became an Air Force tradition, with Commanders annually publicizing the “Christmas with a family” program and they posted signup sheets in the squadron or on office bulletin boards announcing the names of families that had agreed to host a holiday meal for single airmen. The only thing a single airman had to do was sign up, show up, and enjoy a holiday in a family atmosphere.

I never forgot the warmth and generosity of the family I visited during my first year in the military. They had turned their house into a perfect Christmas setting. It wasn’t exactly home, of course, but it was the next best thing. It also gave me an insight into how military families lived outside of basic training and it turned out to be one of the many reasons I made the military a career.

After I was married with a family of my own, we decided to continue that Christmas tradition. Throughout the next twenty years, whether stateside or overseas, we offered an opportunity for single airmen to spend Christmas Day with us and share in our family meal and activities. Generally, we welcomed two or three young airmen, sometimes more. As it turned out, it wasn’t difficult at all to set those additional plates at the dinner table. After the main meal, we opened presents, and there was always one for each guest as well. We also offered them an opportunity to place a call to a loved one. It was an exciting time for them and a rewarding time for us.

Throughout the years we heard from many of those young men and women. It was not long until our scrapbooks became filled with cards and letters from those who we befriended early in their military service.

One letter, written several years ago, especially touched home. I open it every year to reread it. It was from a young man we welcomed into our home more than fifteen years earlier. He was now married, had a family of his own and was carrying on the Air Force military Christmas meal tradition. He was a Sergeant, writing from his assignment in Alaska, reminiscing about the day he spent with us so many years before and the impact it had on his life. Aside from us treating him as one of our own, it also gave him an insight on what family life in the military was like, and he said it influenced his decision to make the Air Force a career. His words definitely brought back memories of my first Christmas away from home.

It was a heartwarming letter, one we keep pressed between the pages of our scrapbook along with many other military memories. It seemed to bring with it something special. It awoke feelings from within that we just couldn’t explain. After reading his letter again, I carefully returned it to the scrapbook, smiling as I did so, wondering if someone, one day, would write him a letter that would bring him as much happiness as his letter did for us.

~Donald L. Dereadt

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