As we enter the Christmas season and contemplate a new year, the headlines of 2013 can't be far enough behind us. Heated debates on gun control, amnesty and health care. Chemical weapons and the possibility of a U.S. strike in Syria. The debt ceiling. The government shutdown.
Where were America's men and women in uniform as this political tug of war dragged on? On the front lines, of course – where they've been since 2001, doing the fighting and dying for freedoms we talk a lot about but still manage to take for granted. Sixty thousand U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and though that number may shrink to half by February, the war isn't over. The enemy hasn't quit. Those with boots on the ground know that the next day, the next hour, could bring a suicide bomb, IED blast or Taliban ambush.
The media may trumpet our gradual withdrawal of forces, but I'm thinking about those who are headed overseas or are there now. Early this month, 140 members of the "Wolfpack" – the 114th Transportation Company, Minnesota National Guard – return to Afghanistan for the first time since 2009. Since October, soldiers of the Army Reserve's 760th Engineering Company out of Virginia have been closing forward operating bases and sending equipment back to the United States. Meanwhile, 45 members of New Hampshire's 238th Medevac Company are on their third deployment in eight years.
And those are the units. Just about every day I hear of an individual receiving orders to Afghanistan or another foreign outpost – a newly married Air Force photographer, an Army JAG officer facing a year away from her husband and three children, and so many others. It's their job, sure, but it's a job with risks that aren't fully realized until they're thousands of miles from home wearing helmets and body armor.
This season, let's reach out to these warriors in ways only The American Legion can. Few other Americans know the loneliness of spending a holiday in a combat zone, far from family and friends, but we do. There's nothing like a message or a care package from a veteran who can relate: "Ten years ago, I was in Iraq, wishing like hell I was back home. I'm praying for your safety today. Thank you for serving."
Go a step further by purchasing an American Legion gift membership for a deployed soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Nothing says "you belong with us" like covering the first-year dues of a young veteran who doesn't have much disposable income. For $25, you can do it online at www.legion.org/giftmembership .
Don't know anyone stationed overseas? Ask a fellow Legionnaire. Military service tends to run in the family; someone in your post may have a relative "over there." Has your post adopted a National Guard or reserve unit? Plenty do; contact the Legion's Internal Affairs Division at (317) 630-1321 to find out how to connect with local servicemembers and their families.
We spend a lot of time trying to meet the needs of returning veterans, but thousands are still in harm's way. This month, as you gather with your loved ones, more than a few U.S. troops will be preparing to engage the enemy. Send 'em some love.