FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Ghazni province, Afghanistan -- Here inthe cold, Taliban-infested areas of eastern Afghanistan, 1st Sgt. AlanRobison is missing Christmas with his wife and children for the fourthtime because of his deployments.
"I'm really big on Christmas, sowhen I'm home my family really goes all out with the tree and lights onthe house," he says. "When I'm not there, they don't do as muchdecorating."
He and his men manage to muster some holiday cheerdespite the distance from home. In between patrols in this hotbed ofTaliban activity, he and his fellow troops decorated a tree.
Thisyear is the 12th holiday season that U.S. servicemembers are inAfghanistan, and it is the time of year that troops can miss theirfamilies the most. But Christmas in Afghanistan is in some ways betterfor troops than it was in previous wars.
The big difference is contact with loved ones.
InWorld War I, there were not direct telephone communications betweenEurope and America, and paper and ink were rare commodities in thetrenches. Commercial radio in the USA was taken over by the government.Independent news from the European front came from newspapers, whichcould be censored.
In World War II and Korea, the military made aserious effort to get troops packages and letters during holidays. Butthe mail could take weeks to catch up to fast-moving troops whoselocations were often a mystery even to generals who relied on spotterplanes in good weather and radio transmissions to keep track of units.
Vietnam,a war that utilized more permanent bases, made use of reel-to-reeltapes sent through the mail so soldiers could hear messages from home onrecorders. Overseas phone service was available by then but soexpensive that it was made available only for emergencies.
None ofthis compares with the communications available to troops today.Deregulation of the telecommunications industry and the advent of theInternet has been followed by an explosion in communication methods.
Manytroops have access to laptop computers or mobile devices likesmartphones linked to Internet-based satellite communications, and cancommunicate instantly back home even while hunkered down in villagesthat have yet to get indoor plumbing.
Still, troops here say theability to use Internet services like Skype, where they see theirfamilies as they talk to them, is not always the greatest thing in theworld.
Spc. Anthony Reed says he will try to catch a glimpse of his3-year-old daughter, Trinity, on Skype, but it will remind him that hewill be missing the day with her.
"It's hard being away from her, really hard," he says. "She knows where I'm at, but she doesn't understand why yet."
Theholidays are a particularly trying time for soldiers with spouses andchildren back home, says Capt. Ray Davidson, the chaplain at Arian. Hesays he has spoken to a number of soldiers about their longing to behome this time of year.
"When we're here, we try to put the familyaside and not dwell on being away from them," Davidson says. "And thenChristmas comes."
He admits he also struggles with his ownChristmas blues, having to remind himself that chaplains "are supposedto be the backbone" supporting soldiers longing for home.
Davidsonsays he hopes to bolster soldiers' spirits come Christmas Day bytraveling to all the nearby bases to conduct Christmas Mass and hand outpresents sent from military supporters back home.
James Burris, acivilian contractor who during his prior military service missedChristmas four times, says he'll try to call home, but can't be surehe'll even be anywhere near an Internet connection on the 25th.
"I'lltry, but I might be outside the wire (away from a military base)working," he says, noting his work on military vehicles has anunpredictable schedule.
His four children, ages 11 to 22, would surely enjoy hearing his voice on Christmas but know they can't count on it, he says.
"They don't like me being gone all the time, but they understand," he says.
Christmasduring the Afghanistan War is also different from other wars in thatthere is a lot less fighting here in winter to keep your mind occupiedon your job rather than on what you are missing back home. Here, thefighting typically slows down because many Pakistani Taliban return homeand do not return until the spring.
"When the cold weatherarrives, the mission slows down and there's more time on your hands,more time to think about being here instead of home," Davidson says.
However,there is still fighting here and the 66,000 troops still in Afghanistando battle with a persistent enemy: maintaining their focus.
"Itell my soldiers to stay focused, keep yourself and your battle buddyalive," Robison says. "A little sadness now (at missing Christmas backhome) can prevent a lot of sadness later."
A break for entertainment
Cheering troops with entertainment has always been part of the Christmas calendar in war zones overseas.
TheUSO averages about 80 entertainment tours a year, which includes bothcombat zones and bases in Europe, the Pacific and elsewhere. About300,000 troops see the entertainers over the course of a year.
Itis difficult to fly entertainers around Afghanistan so the shows aregenerally smaller, says John Pray, USO chief of staff. During World WarII, military installations were more developed and they could havelarger shows.
They now do a lot of "handshake tours," where various celebrities meet with troops, and have fewer large variety shows.
It differs from the past. In World War II there was more of a shared experience in entertainment.
Forexample, everyone knew who Bob Hope was and his appeal was widespreadamong the military. He was among 7,000 performers who played the USO"foxhole circuit" during World War II, far more than the number ofperformers who visit today's troops.
Yet the spectrum ofentertainment offerings that exist today varies widely as do theentertainment tastes among troops. The USO sponsors a number ofentertainers overseas, including sports figures, reality-televisionstars, celebrity chefs and other big names.
"We have a very diverse military and so we try to match that," Pray said.
AUSO "Holiday Tour" this month included Washington Capitals' MattHendricks, Washington Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and CraigStammen, country music singer Kellie Pickler and comedian and host ofCBS' Excused Iliza Shlesinger.
Still, the simpler moments are often more special to troops.
Spc. Paige Booth and her fellow military police soldiers from aNational Guard Unit in West Hartford, Conn., sit around a roaringcampfire one night munching on Christmas candy they received in carepackages.
In the flickering glow of flames, Booth works onknitting a scarf for herself and says spending the holiday inAfghanistan isn't all that bad considering the company she keeps.
"I'm with my second family, so it's OK," she says, a show of emotion that prompts ribbing from her fellow MPs.
"You know what I miss during Christmas over here?" asks Spc. Stephanie Landry. "I miss football and beer."
A select few soldiers are fortunate enough to have their military spouse deployed to the same base as them.
Spc.Amanda Ortiz and her husband, Pfc. Bryant Ortiz, share a room atForward Operating Base Warrior and plan to exchange gifts come the bigday. She got Bryant -- who was away for a week before Christmas on along mission -- a new knife. He got her the watch she really wanted tohelp her train for an upcoming marathon.
"Being together during deployment helps a lot," she says, though she admits, laughing, that "some people get a little jealous."
Pfc.Brian Schwenk says he'll miss spending Christmas with his parents,Cheryl and Scott, in Reading, Pa., and brother David, a specialist inthe Army currently deployed to the Middle East.
"Getting me and mybrother back home for Christmas would be the best present," he sayssmiling, knowing he won't be home until his unit, the 4th InfantryBrigade Combat Team, 1st Division out of Fort Riley, redeploys earlynext year.
As for this Christmas, he says, there is somethingspecial planned for the soldiers at Combat Outpost Muqor in GhazniProvince, though exactly what remains a mystery.
"Whatever it is will be overshadowed by the wait to get home," he says during a snowball fight with fellow soldiers.
ScottSchwenk, father of Brian and David who lives in West Lawn, Pa., saysmost of the extended Schwenk family lives within 25 miles of his home.
"It's rare that anyone misses Christmas, Thanksgiving or going to church on holidays," he says.
Hearingreports of unnamed casualties is especially stressful, he says. Thefamily waits to hear from Brian via Facebook or cellphone so they knowhe is OK.
"Until we see a face or hear a voice you always thinkthe worst," says Schwenk, who misses not going out with "my big huntingbuddy."
Schwenk laments that many Americansdon't think much at this season about the thousands of troops spendingChristmas fighting for their country.
"It's almost like Vietnam,the forgotten war," Schwenk says of Afghanistan. "It's upsetting. Thereare guys over there doing a job for kind of meager pay. It's a toughexistence. It's like people have forgotten about them, other thanfamilies and friends."
Charities and communities are doing a lotas they have in past wars to cheer up troops with gifts, cards andvisits. But this war is different in that it comes at a time when fewerAmericans have a personal connection to the military.
A 2011 studyby the Pew Research Center found that a smaller share of Americansserve in the U.S. military than at any time since the peace-time erabetween World Wars I and II.
"During the past decade ... justone-half of 1% of American adults has served on active duty at any giventime," it said. "The connections between military personnel and thebroader civilian population appear to be growing more distant."
Beingin a Muslim country has not stopped some troops overseas from sharingthe Christmas spirit with locals who are not of the Christian faith.
Maj.Michael Conway says he and his fellow advisers to the Afghan army willinvite their local compatriots to join them for Christmas dinner.
"They know it's an important holiday for us and we want to share it with them," he says.
ThoughConway is missing Christmas with his wife and three children, ages 3 to14, he says that "with a little Christmas music, a little holidayspirit, it's not so bad."