6 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.

“What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items. A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”

– Josef Wenzl, German soldier, The Christmas Truce, December 24, 1914

On Christmas Eve 1990, I sat in the desert somewhere in Saudi Arabia. War was imminent. To quell rumors, Major General Barry McCaffrey, the commander of the 24th Infantry Division, had visited every battalion under his command to gird us for battle, telling us we would not be deploying home until we had driven the Iraqi Army, tail-tucked, all the way back to Baghdad. 

He told us we were about to embark upon a “great adventure.” All I could think was the best part of an adventure was surviving it and years later telling people about it, laughing, maybe crying, mourning the ones we lost, lauding the heroes, and, perhaps without meaning to, instilling a curiosity among the young. A story perpetuating a time-honored tradition, inspiring young people to seek adventure in military service, to test their mettle in battle so they could earn the status of veteran storytellers. 

Yeah, I was cynical about war, even back then, perplexed about the machinations that had brought me halfway around the world to a desert, a wasteland valued only for its oil. We had been in-country for months, dealing with the blinding sunlight reflected off the sand, the stifling heat, the blistering wind, the savage cold, and the darkness, a darkness deeper than any I had ever known when it was a cloudy night. However, on nights with clear skies, it was like the photonegative of day, the ground glowing from reflected starlight and moonlight, now nearly a half-moon on Christmas Eve. We were going to have a Blue Moon on New Year’s Eve a week hence, and it seemed to me an ominous sign foretelling the coming war. 

We had a special meal earlier that evening, steaks and baked potatoes. The meat was a little tough, stringy, and some of the soldiers began whispering about the meat being camel steak instead of beef steak. I did not mind either way. It was good to have real food instead of rations for once.

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

After dinner, I warmed some coffee, cocoa powder and camel milk to make my own version of a mocha. Camel milk was somewhat sweet, and it gave what I called a Ranger mocha a special kick. It was more than sweet but also nurturing, soothing as I contemplated what the coming weeks would bring. We knew the deadline for the Iraqi Army to withdraw from Kuwait was going to be January 15th, and we knew Sadaam Hussein would opt for war rather than obey the United Nations Security Council mandate. 

After drinking my mocha, I quietly slipped away from my unit, Alpha Battery 4th Battalion, 41st Field Artillery. I was a second lieutenant, a fire direction officer, and I did not quite fit with the other troops, partly because I was a leader and partly because I was… different, contemplative, quiet, and unable to boast about wanting to go to battle. I just wanted to do my job, bring soldiers home alive and well, and return to my wife and our baby son who had been born two weeks after my deployment. By Christmas, he was almost four months old, able to hold his head up, sleeping through the night, smiling… It was the hardest thing I had ever done, leaving my wife just before she was due to deliver. 

I crested a hill of rock and sand and looked back at my unit: eight self-propelled M109A3 howitzers, two M577 command post carriers containing the platoon fire direction centers, and an assortment of ammunition carriers, HMMWVs, and trucks. The collection of vehicles beneath camouflage netting looked like an assortment of tents, a kind of small town, unlit and silent beneath the stars. It reminded me of Bethlehem, and I imagined a small, dark mound among my unit no bigger than a manger with Mary and Joseph awaiting the birth of Jesus, Mary already grunting through labor pains. 

I felt a profound desire for the presence of Christ as I gazed at the stars above, not just an assortment of bright lights but whole ribbons of stars clustered like luminous clouds. I had never seen so many stars in my life, had never been far enough away from civilization and artificial lights to notice the splendor of the night sky in full array. 

The moon was low in the east, and I thought about Mecca and Medina, the Holy cities of Islam. I was in the same country that was home to those cities, but as a foreigner and Christian, I knew I could never visit them. I remembered that Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a great prophet and healer, and I wondered if they, in some way, held Christmas in their hearts on this still and beautiful night. I sure hoped so. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, German and English troops, each on the opposite sides of No Man’s Land during World War I (then known as the Great War) began singing Christmas carols. The soldiers, moved by the singing, ventured into No Man’s Land, meeting in the middle to share Christmas, and to sing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). It was a miracle of mythical proportions. Tragically, the good will shared that night and the following day did not persist, and many millions died in the next four years. Even so, the miracle of that night endures. 

This made me wonder, what common link could create such a miracle between Christians and Muslims? Not knowing the answer, I prayed for that kind of union, and I found myself singing a Christmas carol, O Holy Night, staring at the sky full of stars. 

O Night Divine… 

Previous episodes

Last Updated December 26, 2021, 10:29 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor