Cold War Germany before the wall came down. The land remained under long post-World War II occupation, half Soviet, half American. Arrived at his new duty station, young Army Lieutenant Brent Bracewell (now a Georgia National Guard Colonel) entered through the base gate near a swash of German graffiti: "Yankee Go Home!"
The only Southerner in his new unit, Bracewell drew humor from the slogan. "See, they don't even like y'all over here," he quipped to his Northern-born comrades. But it was hard to feel at home in sight of the bold insult just beyond their compound.
Then, Christmas Eve. The work day over, enlisted soldiers headed back to their barracks and the barracks banter sure to pack a charge of mirth this night. Married officers headed toward homes and spouses.
But for an unmarried officer a long way from home there was not much to look forward to, Bracewell related. He decided to check on the gate guards. Whenever he felt glum, it was never hard to find someone a bit worse off, he explained. In lightening such burdens he lightened his own, Bracewell knew.
He found the two gate guards standing watch in the snow, flakes swirling down round their helmets and rifle muzzles. As the three stood talking, a car with foreign license plates jerked to a halt in front. Its driver rushed to the trunk and popped it open. Bracewell touched the elbow of the guard nearest, signaling "Be ready."
But the intruder was no terrorist. A Santa Claus instead, the German kind: "der Weihnachtsman." He brought bags from the trunk, sacks with gifts characteristic to Germany.
“In the shadow of that sign that said 'Yankee Go Home!', he brought three small gifts to us, me and the two gate guards,” Bracewell remembers. “And in his broken English he said, 'Thank you for being in my country and keeping my country free.'”
Know that come Christmas Eve as the clock rounds toward midnight the world over, wakeful watch-keepers of the United States military will mark those minutes far from home.
Some may be minding the helm of a warship at sea. Some monitor communications through the night. Some guard the perimeter of a safe zone, so others can rest. Some may even pilot aircraft through the dark, alone between heaven and earth on that night when once the angels sang.
Keep us mindful, dear God, of their sacrifices on our behalf. Give them your peace at this Christmas season and bless them, we pray, every one.