Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Guadalupe Lopez remembers well his first Christmas away from home after joining the military when he was 16 years old.
“There was quite a few times I was by myself for the holidays,” said Lopez, a native of Laredo, Texas, and a Killeen resident since he retired from the service in 1980. “My first duty station was Fort Richardson, Alaska, and that was my first separation from the family. I was young then – only 17 or 18 – and it felt bad. I probably shed quite a few tears.
“Being that young, you miss it more than you do later on. Even though I was with a group of other young soldiers, you miss your family during the holidays. We tried to make it easy on ourselves by enjoying the feeling of friendship and camaraderie that we had but still, when you get back to your room at night, your bunk, you’re there by yourself and all of a sudden it comes back to you – oh my God, I’m away from home. I wonder how my parents are feeling.
“Coming from the (south Texas) border area, we had big celebrations for Christmas. Our celebrations started on the 12th of December and went on almost all the way through the 6th of January. I missed that a lot.
“This was 1955 and at that time, we had regular telephones and we didn’t have the means to call home – the money to call home. The only thing we did was just write letters and messages, things like that. And we got care packages from home. Mom used to take care of me. She sent me a care package about every month. She’d send the normal things that I liked – sweet breads, things like that.”
Lopez’ military career included two tours in Korea, one tour in Vietnam, and a stint as an advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru. In October 1962, he nearly saw his first combat as part of the U.S. invasion force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a short-lived but historic confrontation between the former Soviet Union and United States over Soviet missile deployments on Cuban soil.
That mission ended before any fighting, but a few years later, Lopez was on the ground in Vietnam, a noncommissioned officer in charge at his tactical operations center (1969-70).
When Christmas rolled around that year, a cease-fire was declared for 24 hours, but the troops had little time to relax.
“I was in my late 20s – probably about 29 or 30, somewhere in there – and I had just had a new son born in August,” the father of four said. “Being away from home, from the other three children and my wife, was hard, and now I had a fourth child.
“There was a truce when we stopped firing from noon on the 24th to noon on the 25th (of December). We went outside the bunkers and you’d see the flares going off everywhere in celebration of Christmas. You felt happy, first of all, that you were there with your friends, but at midnight, you felt like breaking down in tears.
“We had people singing (carols) in the bunkers and when you heard that … then everybody stopped singing at midnight. It got real quiet. Everyone got really sad about being away from home.
“Then on the 25th in the afternoon, things got back to the normal fighting. Even though there was a no-fire, we still had people out there on patrol, just to make sure that everything was quiet.”
In between manning their various posts and guarding the base, the troops were able to enjoy a Christmas dinner of turkey and all the usual trimmings. Lopez said the hot meal was nice, but the soldiers had other things on their mind, too.
“We had to take turns eating because you couldn’t leave your position for too long,” he said. “I was out on a patrol base, away from the main base, and the battalion was able to bring in a hot meal for supper.
“We would just pull back soldiers to go and eat, then go back out to their positions again. Even though it was a truce, we had to stay awake and make sure everything was OK.
“It was one of the few times we had a hot meal. I was the operations sergeant out with an infantry battalion and our meals consisted of only one hot meal a day. Normally that was at lunchtime, but sometimes I would miss that because of the (enemy) contact that we had. Or I was flying around with the colonel.
“You really don’t pay attention (to mealtime). When you are there fighting, you eat whenever you can.
“Really, Christmas was just another day for us in Vietnam. We really didn’t pay much attention to the holidays. There was too much to do just protecting your own life. Making sure you would get back home alive.
“When the truce was over, you just went back to fighting. We had our patrols ready to go back out at noon. We forgot all about Christmas.”
For soldiers today serving away from home for the holidays, Lopez – who wrote a book about his time in Vietnam: “The Battalion Staff Duty Journal: 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry in Vietnam – One Soldier’s Story” – says it is important to remember the reason for that separation.
“What I can say is … try to think about what you’re doing. You’re defending this great country. It’s not just going to happen by itself; it takes somebody to do it. Somebody has to be on guard out there.
“The time is going to come when you’ll be back home with your family. Think about what you’re doing and think about your family. You’re helping to protect them and everyone else.
“Sometimes when I go to bed, I think about the nice quiet evening I have enjoyed while other people (around the world) are getting bombarded every day. How do they feel? War is horrible.
“We went through it in Vietnam. We slept with one eye open. But we knew it was our mission.
“Tell the soldiers to think about what they’re doing. They’re taking care of their families, and they have to realize that somebody has to do it. Remember that almighty God is taking care of our families back home and we have to try to make it the best way we can.”