Dispatch From Iraq: A soldier shares his gratitude | NevadaAppeal.com

Dispatch From Iraq: A soldier shares his gratitude

Sgt. Gary Underhill
For the Nevada Appeal

For most, the holiday season is a time of joy, a time of family and a time of thanks.

Since the earliest days of our country’s history, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have had to spend their holidays far from home – away from the comforts of a warm, familiar bed, the smells of a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal and the joyous anticipation of Christmas morning.

It’s easy to fall victim to loneliness and depression when you’re far from home and the only reminder you have of family is a bent and crinkled photograph or a sporadic Internet connection. Or when you feel so far away and detached that memories of what used to be become harder and harder to recall.

It’s times like these when we feel at our lowest, that I think of the young men at Valley Forge, shivering and dying alone in the snow with no food in their belly. Or the young men who spent Christmas 1944 huddled together for warmth in shallow, frozen foxholes in the Ardennes. Shivering not only from the cold, but from the horrors of repeated German shelling, while the Allied commanders sat around a blazing fire enjoying their Christmas feast well away from the fighting.

Valley Forge 1777. Ypres, Belgium, 1914. The Ardennes, Belgium, 1944. Korea 1952. Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968 … Iraq 2009.

Only the years and the uniforms have changed. The faces of the young men and women remain the same as does the loneliness. But as I write this, I sit not in a frozen or muddy foxhole short on food, winter clothing or ammunition, but instead in my camp chair beside my bunk, with a large, steaming Starbucks coffee in front of me.

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Except for one time since I’ve been here, nobody has lobbed an artillery shell or mortar round in my general direction. That one time struck close enough to me that it felt like I had been punched in the chest. It was close enough that I could see the smoke and dust plume and hear the rocks falling. But it was just one, not hundreds striking close enough that I wouldn’t be able to hear my own screams.

Still, as Thanksgiving approaches, I search to find things to be thankful for. I have friends here and at home – friends I can depend on unquestioningly. Friends who have been here for me and with me through some very difficult times, and continue to do so without ridicule or judgment.

My dad once told me that some of the closest friends he ever had were those he made in the Army. The strength and resiliency of some of the men and women I serve with is inspirational to say the least, and I only hope that I have honored their friendship by living up to their example.

I have two beautiful little girls waiting for me at home who are healthy and happy. There isn’t a phone call that passes that I don’t laugh and laugh at something Olivia, my precious little 5-year-old, says to me.

My 8-year-old daughter, Alyssa, is a blessing to my heart. She’s wise and grown up beyond her years. I have never been more passionately in love with another human man being as I am with my daughters.

I’m thankful for my two adult children, Mark, 20, and Ashley, 23. Mark is an aspiring animator and writer. Ashley is nearing the completion of her degree in paralegal studies and has just gotten hired on at a new law firm in Illinois. Both of them have overcome unbelievable hardships and emotional trauma in their lives. I couldn’t be a prouder father. (And to my fellow soldiers that may read this – no, she is not single and don’t even think about it!)

My other “daughter” Hannah. I’ve been in her life since she was 4 years old. She’s nearly 18 now, and I’ve watched her grow into one of the truly happiest young women I have ever known.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve my country and my state. Although I’ve only lived in Nevada since 1998, Nevada is my home and for the first time in many years, I feel settled and content. I am still amazed, as if gazing upon it for the very first time, at Nevada’s wondrous beauty.

I’m thankful for a successful career. Law enforcement, and the opportunity to serve the people of Carson City, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. I look forward to returning a far better man and a far better deputy sheriff than the day I left.

In a few days, I will likely head out on yet another mission and spend Thanksgiving on a dark, lonely stretch of Iraqi highway. Thanksgiving dinner will be eaten in a chow hall on one of our distant FOBs amongst my buddies. For now, they are the closest thing I have to family here, and I am thankful beyond words for them.

Lastly, I am thankful for all of you back home. Those of you who support us and even those of you who don’t. You are the true heroes in this nearly decade-long saga. You make up everything that is great about this nation. You are all living representations of the freedoms that so many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines died to protect throughout our nation’s history.

So when you sit down to dinner with your family today, and when you head out to the stores and the malls to fight the crowds and do your Christmas shopping, do it for those who never will again. Live your lives with all your heart.

Honor those who aren’t with us anymore by living for those who gave their lives in this struggle. Honor their courage and sacrifice by living and loving to the fullest!

That’s all we want for Christmas …

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