In normal times, Jess Abbott is one of the pastors at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in suburban Kenwood, where the holidays bring special services and celebrations. But this is wartime.

So, Lt. Col Abbott will spend the holidays in the Middle East as a chaplain to young soldiers a long way from family, home and traditions.

An ordained minister since 1988, he has also been an Army Reserve chaplain since 1990, and is on his second deployment to the Middle East.

The 49-year-old married father of three was deployed the first time to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He is now in Kuwait, where he will spend Christmas. In a recent e-mail exchange, the Coldwater, Mich. native discussed being overseas for the holidays.

What are the holidays like during a wartime deployment?

Holidays in November and December are especially meaningful for deployed service members (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, all of whom share camp facilities) because these are key holidays for assembling with family; and of course they can't.

Commanders are very diligent about promoting holiday activities such as unit parties. The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation director also assures there are special festivities at each camp. The USO also promotes activities as well as provides lots of phone connectivity and Internet access.

All of these programs make things better for the troops, but they can't replace doing it with family.

The chaplains also add to holiday activities by doing services for all faith groups. I think worship services allow people to experience something similar to what we would at home.

Fellow believers are a great help for encouragement during separation, and worship also connects us with God and loved ones through the spiritual resource we have in prayer.

I always like to tell the folks back home that service members primarily pray for them, as we know they pray for us. There is a sense of unity in that!

What are some of the holiday meals you've had while overseas?

Dining Facilities (DFACs) do a very good job at putting on special meals. Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, tastes very much like what we have a home, with a real bird being carved up.

The missing piece is again family... There usually are places set aside for
viewing football game, but minus the recliner or beer.

What is it like for young soldiers who are spending Christmas away from home for the first time?

I think it really depends on their perspective on whether their deployment is adding or subtracting from their "life experience." Not everyone can say, "¢I spent a Christmas in the desert with a bunch of people that all dress the same.'

On the other hand, if one views Christmas as a spiritual experience, one is not far from the very place of Nativity. Christmas is a time service members can experience that night much as it was like. Indeed, one can meet genuine shepherds around here, and the night sky draws one's eyes to the stars.

Are anxieties sometimes worsened?

Yes, especially if a relationship back home takes a dip or a dive. And this can happen at any time, not only around holidays. The vast majority of service members are incredibly resilient; I don't think we appreciate that as much as we should. We see service members as tough and physically resilient, but they are also emotionally resilient.

As a chaplain, I think I bring a message to the mix that can help them bounce back. If they have any tradition of faith, I point to using spiritual resources, the most powerful of which are: Scripture, prayer, and fellowship with other believers done with some synchronicity. These are resources that fill human emptiness and the gap that exists between being in control and being powerless. These resources not only help during deployment, but also build something for a lifetime.

How are other religions' holidays observed?

We either have a military Chaplain or a Lay Distinctive Faith Group Leader for each faith group, so many services are offered. Hanukkah is celebrated. The most festive holiday for Muslims is Eid al-Adha in early November. This is a festival celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah, and concludes the Hajj pilgrimage. For Christians, we usually have at least two ecumenical services for each holiday: one traditional with hymns and the other with contemporary praise music.

What about Muslim soldiers?

I have experienced very little difference in the needs of our Muslim service members. They either seek out a chaplain to get connected with the religious service they need, or talk about the same issues any service member has in dealing with separation from family.

How does being in a Muslim country change your service?

It doesn't change our worship services at all, because they are held inside bases or camps. The main difference is that decorations are usually indoors.

All service members are briefed on how to behave when going off camp and how to respect our host nation's customs and religion.

Actually, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan is the most important time to practice cultural sensitivity. During that nearly monthlong holiday, service members need to avoid eating or drinking in front of (fasting) Muslims during daylight hours.

What changes do the holidays bring?

The only thing that will change for me during holidays is doing one extra worship service. I also expect my pastoral counseling numbers to rise as service members just seek out chaplains to chat about the joys or sorrows of separation during holidays.

What are your memorable holiday moments overseas?

My favorite memory is providing chaplain coverage in Saudi Arabia for Christmas of 2004. I recognized that one big need at the base there would be doing something special for the guards in the guard towers on Christmas Eve.

My chaplain assistant and I devised a plan to distribute white chocolate cocoa and candy canes to all the guards on duty.

The guards we visited were in many tall towers with ladders. Guards were very appreciative of our visit. Some had tears in their eyes as they told us how they were thinking of "mom" or "sis" right now and were emotionally swimming in the gratitude and love they had for their families.

Even though I missed Christmas with my family, I believe this is one of the most meaningful I've had in my life.

However, I must say it was the first time in my life I awoke on Christmas morning with such aching legs from climbing ladders.

Are you able to speak with family on Christmas?

I call all of them. It just requires staying up late. Ohio is seven hours earlier than our time zone. It also takes fewer calls if several family members are gathered in one place and they can pass the phone around.

Are most soldiers able to get a call with family around the holidays?

Yes, but it depends on when their families are available to receive a call, which requires a little pre-planning. The Red Cross and other organizations have been very benevolent in providing free calling cards.

With the planned removal of troops from Iraq at year's end, how do you think that will change Christmas for troops?

Some, of course, will be very happy and make it home for Christmas.

Many will not. Many of those remaining in Iraq or Kuwait will be grappling with either the fact that this is the first Christmas away from family or that it is not the only Christmas they have missed with family due to deployment.

Right now, I think some are saddened as the holidays approach, but my own prediction about the arrival of Christmas is that service members will truly celebrate it as comrades and with a sense of joy.

After 10 years, what are your thoughts on what's been accomplished?

I think the bottom line of what has been accomplished is that Iraq has an opportunity to become what it wants to be. I'm willing to wait for another decade before looking back, but I hope to see a strong nation and a healthy people among the nations.

My personal hope is to be able, in my retirement as a tourist, to visit the wonderful people as well as Babylon and the other wonderful sites this nation has.

Daniel C. Sewell is an Associated Press correspondent based in Cincinnati.

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