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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Rescuing orphaned Montagnard girl kindles spirit of Christmas

I get the sense from most people I encounter that they consider Christmas one big hassle. There’s the rush to shop for presents, dress the tree, hang the lights and plan for the festivities. The meaning of Christmas is lost to commercialism. According to Christian tradition, it’s supposed to commemorate the birth of Jesus, but he rarely gets a mention anymore.

Understanding moments of euphoria are important. This time of year, I’m vulnerable to such musings since Christmas evokes thoughts during an era where meaning is skewed toward triviality.

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I thought I’d share a Christmas story from my personal journal titled: “1970.” It’s about a child; but more so, it tells of the metamorphic change among a platoon of Marines serving in the Vietnam War and their realization that Christmas magic exists in a wasteland. It’s copied directly from my journal. The events of those few days forever clarified for me that the miracle of Christmas is the joining of this world with the next.

“23 December 1970 — the day began after midnight. We were inserted north of Quang Tri, close to the Laotian border. Our mission: to establish a radio-relay site between the enemy and us. Shortly before dawn, we reached the perimeter of the village. We were expected … a battle ensued … we prevailed. We entered the village and found it abandoned except for one. She couldn’t be more than 3. I’d say she was closer to 2. She was hungry, unclothed, and gave us a big smile when we came into view.”

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After 49 years, I still see her smile.

“Corporal Feldman swaddled her while the men gave her the last of their rations. Oh! Even the hardest of hearts of the hardest of men were softened by caring for this child.

“The Marines held the little Montagnard girl; the wise men, the shepherds and the drummer boy. Only circumstance made them different. The same star they originally followed centuries before still led the way. Chocolate, canned peaches and pound cake replaced the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“As we tended to her needs, we treasured the gifts she gave us. We were given a new birth, a chance to find meaning in the maddening inertia of things; a hope that finding and saving her would save us and somehow make the insanity and inhumanity worth it. We had found a reason to exist and rationalize the havoc we brought.

“We searched for her family or any signs of life. There were none. Regardless, the mission was scrubbed — unsuitable for communications.”

“24 December 1970” — Carrying the little girl, we moved quickly to our extraction point. For her sake, not ours, I hoped that the Captain had read the map correctly. Navigating in a dense jungle is no better than a guess.

“Miracle of miracles! The choppers came at dawn and returned us and the Montagnard girl to Quang Tri. The whole platoon was present when we delivered her to the orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy.

“As we said our goodbyes, the Marines showered her with keepsakes and good luck charms. Somehow, we didn’t need these anymore. We had found something better! We promised to return, but knew we wouldn’t.”

In Vietnam, the dream was always better than the reality.

“Christmas Eve brought a 24-hour truce. It was a silent night, and, in most areas, all was calm, and all was bright. For one day, the hate and anguish that filled our hearts were replaced by joy and peace, the gift from the little Montagnard girl.”

That evening, the men moved in slow motion and hardly made a dent in the beer the chopper brought.

“Sergeant Lehue and I shared a can of ham and lima beans. We sat in silence, unable to find the words to describe what we felt. Sergeant Lehue said, ‘Lieutenant, if there is a God, he’s alive and well and with us tonight. Merry Christmas, sir.’”

Thinking back nearly half a century, I remember it was a very Merry Christmas.

Joe Puglia is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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