Out and About (Sort of): Desert Christmas Still Resonates by Howard Freedlander


Today, 28 years ago, I celebrated Christmas with a hardy group of Maryland National Guard troops and feisty desert flies in Saudi Arabia. We were there as part of Operation Desert Shield, which preceded the 100-day combat action, commonly called Operation Desert Storm.

We were near Dhahran in Eastern Saudi Arabia.

The recently deceased George Herbert Walker Bush was President.  He initiated the first Persian War against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. General Norman Schwarzkopf led the Allied forces in 1991 in a fast-moving, lightning strike against the overwhelmed Iraqi troops.

My memories of Christmas Day in 1990 are crystal-clear. The Guard troops were amazingly resilient as they enjoyed Christmas devoid of decorations, gifts, family and festive music in deference to Muslim strictures. They simply sat around picnic tables telling jokes and filling the time with laughter and goodwill.

Though forbidden to display any holiday decorations in a Muslim country, the troops resisted in creative ways. For example, early in the still-dark morning, a soldier dressed up as Santa Claus strolled around the desert post. That same day, I saw a Christmas tree on top of a barrack. The village elders demanded that the tree be removed. And it was, sadly.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the troops smuggled in the Santa Claus costume and the tree. I marveled at American ingenuity—and devotion to a holiday so important to our nation, notwithstanding the outward aspects objectionable to the religious traditions of Saudi Arabia.

I smiled at the rebellious action in a country that we were protecting in an upcoming war.

An incredible experience overcame me on Christmas Eve. I attended a service conducted by a Lutheran chaplain. I felt comfortable. I felt warmly embraced by God. My secular sense of Judaism was forgotten for the moment.

My journey to conversion to Christianity took root in a Muslim country.

I learned on that Christmas Day, more than 6,700 miles away from home and family, that simplicity can be mystical and meaningful, without our normal accoutrements. I’ve never forgotten that fulfilling experience.

To Spy readers busy today celebrating Christmas, I wish you, your family and friends a joyful and healthy holiday.  Christmas, whether simple or ornate, brings hope, a soulful yearning for peace and friendship and kindness.

I am saddened, unfortunately, in this season of hope by our alarming lack of competent and moral leadership in the White House. No amount of holiday cheer shields me from concern about a great nation that has lost respect among allies and friends in a world that formerly depended on the United States as a reliable partner.

I could not end this column without tempering my normal optimism and eternal hope in response to the degraded state of a country led by a person unable to make reasoned decisions and retain top-quality advisers, such as the soon-departing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Mattis is a man blessed with honesty and character. He’s a learned man. A retired Marine Corps general, he was a warrior. He understood that war should be a last resort. He realized that peace is possible only with trusted allies. He harbored an understandable distrust of Russia, China, Syria and North Korea.

Christmas is special. It celebrates the birth of a person whose personal qualities were out of this world. He changed how we viewed ourselves and others. He offered us belief in our better selves in a way that threatened the status quo. He preached forgiveness and love of others, particularly the impoverished.  He extolled fairness and faith.

I trust that our country can return to the type of simplicity and goodness I experienced in a military outpost in Saudi Arabia. Naïveté aside, I believe that selfless leadership and moral behavior can make a difference in our complicated world.

Merry and Happy Christmas.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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