In my family, Christmas time has always represented happiness, togetherness and caring for one another. In the warm embrace of our loved ones, we treasured what we had in our lives and tried our best to show our compassion for each other by spending time and sharing gifts with one another.
It would start with the early Christmas morning ritual: waking up at 3 a.m., hours before my parents or siblings woke up, sneaking upstairs and turning on the television to watch TBS’s 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story.” Watching it, sitting next to the Christmas tree and gazing upon all my presents that appeared overnight was just so exciting to me, even as recent as high school.
We would open presents, start up our Christmas breakfast and fill our house with the sugary scent of a fresh batch of Christmas cookies laid upon the stove. My grandparents would come over with more presents and more cookies. Not at any point during the day did I harbor any thought in my mind other than the sheer joy brought from 18 years of spending time with my family I loved and cared about so much.
But it was only one year ago that I woke up on my 20th Christmas Day, nine months into my tour at Ramstein, and the only thoughts I had in my mind were worry and fright.
It all stemmed from a phone that was laying on my desk.
Throughout the week of Christmas, I carried the public affairs alert phone with me. Alert photography, one of the more unpleasant aspects of my job, is photography that supports the investigation of anything involving the military. I’ve taken photos of many investigations, ranging from house fires and crime scenes to suicides and attempted suicides.
Fresh in my mind were the rooms of those Airmen I had taken photos of after trying to take their own lives earlier that year. I passed those Airmen almost daily, whether it was in the dining facility or just doing laundry at the dormitory.
It wasn’t real for me until I saw their faces. Their stares were desperate, and I only saw more of it as I came inches away with my camera to document the scars left behind. Those eyes were telling us what they’d been trying to explain all along: “I’m alone. I need help. I can’t take it anymore.”
When I woke up on that Christmas, these were the only thoughts I had in my mind. I didn’t want that phone to go off, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it because every time I reminded myself of these almost-lost souls, I thought of myself.
Throughout the holiday season, I battled with severe depression and anxiety. I began to forget who I was. I felt so stressed from work every day that I didn’t feel like doing anything but sleeping when I got back home. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. every morning and see missed calls from my mom, dad or grandparents. I’d try to call them back if they were still awake, but I often was met with a voicemail.
I felt so disconnected from my normal life that all I knew was my work life, which was wearing quickly on me. I was alone and weak. I reminded myself of all the mistakes I kept making, and usually did so over an influx of beer, alone in my room.
And that Christmas, the one time I depended on as a chance to reconnect with my former self, I was instead waiting to see if I had to serve as alert photographer during someone’s darkest hour in his or her life.
That Christmas, I just prayed that I wasn’t going to get another call.
The phone laid silently on my desk all week. To me, that was God’s gift to me that Christmas, the warmest embrace I could’ve asked for.
One of the most important values I’ve learned to hold close after all of this is caring for others.
Most of us aren’t used to being away from our loved ones this time of the year, and while an easy solution would be to fly back and see them, it’s not always possible.
That’s why we, big-A Airmen, have to embrace each other as family, especially during this time of the year.
One of the best things I’ve ever done here is become the president of my dorm. I’ve used my position to put together events like dorm dinners and social events for those living in my dormitory and others around base.
For example, I’ll be hosting the second annual dorm Thanksgiving dinner for Airmen in my dorm next month, once again with help from the Key Spouses Club here in the KMC.
These events have connected me with more people than ever before, but connecting isn’t enough. We have to stay with each other through thick and thin. The mission at Ramstein is demanding, but it shouldn’t ever be too much to prevent us from caring about one another.