The holiday season means family time for most Americans, but that’s not the case for many U.S. military personnel who can’t return home to eat turkey dinners, open presents, light the menorah or participate in other traditions.
It’s a situation veterans who served in decades past can identify with, as they too found themselves far from home between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, often under harrowing conditions.
For 95-year-old Art Schmitz, for example, Christmas Eve 1944 was “just another day under fire” because the Battle of the Bulge was well underway.
“Several other soldiers and I were holed up in a house in Bastogne, Belgium, singing Christmas carols when we heard the drone of approaching planes,” says Schmitz, author of the memoir A Tourist in Uniform: World War II Memories.
“Grabbing our rifles a little tighter, for all the good that would do, we held our breath and waited.”
The first plane dropped flares, lighting up the night skies. The soldiers scrambled to the cellar stairs, falling down the steps as bombs exploded and parts of the house collapsed above them.
“On Christmas morning, we discovered that the house had taken a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb that landed on the toilet, splitting it in two,” Schmitz says. “The bomb just about demolished the house, but it didn’t explode. I vowed I was going to come back to Bastogne for a peaceful Christmas.”
Today, there are about 1.3 million active military personnel, and about 200,000 of those are deployed overseas. Each holiday season, a number of organizations provide support to the troops and their families, and also accept donations from Americans who want to help. A few of those include:
- Red Cross. The Red Cross has a “Holidays for Heroes” program that enables people to “give something that means something” during the holiday season. The Red Cross says it invites the public “to join their local Red Cross offices to thank and recognize members of the military, veterans and their families through a variety of activities.” Anyone interested in helping should check with their local Red Cross office to learn more.
- USO. The USO delivers holiday care packages during various holidays throughout the year. The USO reports that since the program was launched in 2011, it has distributed nearly 1,500 boxes that brought holiday cheer to more than 110,000 service members in more than 500 locations.
- Operation Gratitude. This non-profit organization sends individually addressed care packages to troops serving overseas, veterans, military families and others. Each package contains snacks, hygiene products, entertainment, and handmade items, as well as personal letters of support.
After surviving that Christmas Eve in 1944, Art Schmitz recalls making it to the mess hall for a much-needed Christmas Day meal, and then being handed a copy of General Anthony C. McAuliffe’s holiday message to his troops.
In the conclusion of that message, the general wrote: “We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.”