What I Learned From a Wartime Christmas Eve

    Nolan Peterson


    Perhaps, in the end, war is as perennial as any holiday and always will be.

    KYIV, Ukraine—The first time I ever saw a war, it was on Christmas Eve in 2009. At the time, I was a green Air Force special operations pilot on my first deployment to Afghanistan.

    I had already been in country for a few weeks, flying mostly day missions. Easy stuff, like surveillance and reconnaissance sorties, which typically meant orbiting ad infinitum over a target while on autopilot.

    I’d usually bring an energy drink in the boot pocket of my tan flight suit as a pick-me-up before landing. During the missions, which lasted for hours, I’d munch on sandwiches I’d picked up from the chow hall before takeoff.

    Truly, up to that point, the flying I had done over Afghanistan wasn’t much different than training missions back at Hurlburt Field, Florida, where I was stationed at the time. Except for the mountains, of course, and the ever-present, nebulous idea that the enemy was down in the ether of those patchwork brown and tan fields and stair-stepped plots of vertiginous earth.

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    Also, the body armor vest and loaded pistol on my chest and the M-4 carbine stashed behind my seat reminded me in no uncertain terms that this was something more serious than a training mission.

    Still, I hadn’t seen the war yet. Not really. I had to tell myself that it was down there. I had no other evidence of it.

    As I said, my first true combat mission was on Christmas Eve. I had been broken in with the easy missions, and for this first combat operation I was paired with an older, more experienced pilot as my aircraft commander. For the sake of discretion, I’m not going to publish his name, since he’s still on active duty.

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