Guest Authors

Joseph L. Galloway: Remember the empty chairs at holiday tables


More than 170,000 men and women of our military will spend their Christmas and New Year's in Iraq and Afghanistan, where killing and dying never take a day off.

Oh, Uncle Sam will do his best to see that most of them sit down to a special dinner of hot turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, and even in the most remote outpost some soldier or Marine will jury-rig a tree of sorts with decorations of sorts.

But it's a hollow celebration for a lonely soldier so far from home and loved ones, and lonely, too, at that dinner table back home where a chair stands empty at the head of the table.

The holidays always bring the troops to mind for me. My earliest memories are of holidays during World War II when rationing of meat and sugar and all manner of things that we take for granted today made the feasting and gift-giving a lot more difficult.

My dad and six of his brothers were all gone to war, along with four of my mom's brothers. I grew up in houses full of frightened women who were doing their best to make do on shortened rations and small allotment checks. My mother got $17 a month from dad's $21 a month pay.

Times were hard, but every American, indeed everyone in the world, had a stake in a war that was ravaging much of Europe and Asia and would kill 60 million people before it was over.

I have my own memories of holidays spent with soldiers and Marines in combat zones from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf to Iraq.

The first was Christmas in An Khe with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1965. The newly arrived division and my friends in the 7th U.S. Cavalry had been blooded in the previous month's terrible battles in the Ia Drang Valley.

The memories of young men wounded and dying all around were fresh in our minds. The gaps in our ranks had been filled with green troops yanked out of replacement depots, and the new arrivals looked at the old, sad eyes of men no older than they were with awe, and we all wondered what fresh Hell we'd found ourselves inhabiting.

And along came the Bob Hope traveling troupe to take our minds off the war for a couple of hours. Everyone howled at Bob's corny jokes and Jerry Colona's slapstick antics. Everyone's eyes bulged at the sight of a scantily clad Joey Heatherton dancing wildly around the stage.

When it was over, most of us just sat there on the ground wishing it wasn't; wishing we weren't there; wishing that we were home in a crowded living room smelling the treats soon to emerge from a hot, busy kitchen.

Then everyone got up, brushed the red dirt off their jungle fatigues and drifted back to their green Army tents and cots.

Back to reality.

Another memory is of Thanksgiving in the Saudi Arabian desert in November of 1990. I'd signed up to go eat turkey and trimmings with some unit, somewhere out among the sand dunes, when I was called to board a bus with two dozen other reporters and photographers.

The bus would stop at an empty crossroads, and the guy with the clipboard would call off a name or two and drop them before moving on.

My turn came, and I stepped off literally in the middle of nowhere. A tall captain of artillery stepped up and saluted: "Mr. Galloway, we are C Battery, 1st  Battalion, 21st Field Artillery. We call ourselves The Falcons and you will understand why far better than anyone. We provided fire support for the 7th Cavalry at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang."

I stood there unable to say a word, tears rolling down my cheeks. Then I knew that somewhere in that cold, forbidding institution that is an Army, there was both a memory and a heart, and that heart was as tender as my own.

I've never had so fine a Thanksgiving dinner as that one in an Army mess tent in a cold, windswept desert; never enjoyed the company and camaraderie so much as I did then and there.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    KLM · 13 years ago
    For the life of me, I will never understand what my husband goes through during his deployments. I will sit blissfully at home, thinking about folding laundry, wondering if the kids will ever stop screaming. My husband is ten thousand miles away, might as well be a million.

    Thank you for sharing this piece. It gives me a sliver of insight into what may be running through his mind this Christmas Season. I will never really know, though.

    But we will be sitting here eating Christmas dinner, wishing he were with us and praying for his safety.

    And we'll be hoping next Christmas will be more merry for all of us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Klimczak · 13 years ago

    While I disagree with your politics, and think responsibility for the near disaster in Iraq - and waiting one in Afganistan - rests on a much more complicated structure of dicisions and history than your simple, vitriolic derision of a few people, I always read your posts here.

    Your experience and past performance have earned that respect.

    Thank you for reminding me why I enjoyed your past work. I'll probably never know the bonds these men and women share, but I can understand it, partly vicariously through your words.
    When I read your quote from the Artillery Captain, I felt a shadow of what must have been a nearly overwhelming emotion for you, and I still teared-up.

    Thank you for your perspective, for bringing the hearts of those serving far away into our thoughts.

    And thank them. All that serve, men and women. And all that support them.

    They sacrifice time now, so we may avoid greater sacrifice later.

    God Bless You All!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mrs G · 13 years ago
    To Michael, Joe and all the troops.

    Just want to take this opportunity to wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Thank you for telling the stories of our brave men and women.

    And we thank all the troops for the precious gift of freedom you all continue to give.

    Thoughts and Prayers are with you all, Godspeed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Cain · 13 years ago
    Thanks Guys
    Please when you are with the Troopers pass on my thanks and praise for there service to our Great Country.
    They are in my prayers as are you.
    From a WTC Survivor
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Angelia Knottie · 13 years ago
    With every empty chair their is a heart full of love for the one who should be sitting in it. For most those chairs will once again be filled. Blessedly... For some the chair will remain empty. For those of us who will forever have an empty chair at our table we must embrace more than ever the love in our hearts. We must fill the emptiness with memories and allow those memories to inspire us. And we must always whether the chair is empty for a moment or forever reach out to the men and women who share a part of our loved one's life that we will never truly fully understand. Extend your hearts to those of your loved ones military family and the emptiness is not so dark because they do bring a light to you that is a spark of your loved ones spirit.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Emm Hogan · 13 years ago
    Thank you for so publicly remembering those who we have empty seats for at our tables in remembrance and honor.

    You give them a voice and a face for so many who do not know them as individuals. They are loved and honored and respected by those who are here in safety. And a voice for those of us who have sat home and held the fort waiting for them.

    May you and all be Brightly Blessed.

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