There’s a bit of Santa Claus in all of us

There’s a bit of Santa Claus in all of us

by J. Phil VanEtten, Jr.
USO Okinawa

My wife and I just watched our first Christmas movie of 2020.  It reminded me of an article I wrote two years ago entitled, "Why I Hate Christmas Movies". While many of the contents and ideas of that article are still true, 2020 changed my outlook and thoughts on life as we approach the holiday season. For the 2020 holiday season, I think it’s time to get our Santa Claus on!

As a boy, it was easy to believe in Santa Claus and all he represented. I needed a ‘Superman like’ figure to believe in and Santa Claus delivered every year. He was perfect and reliable. I know now that Santa Clause arrived with the assistance of my mom or dad and often from other family members or close friends. Life was perfect. However, as I grew older, my belief system changed. I became more cynical in life and, to some extent, bitter because of hard work and seeing harsh realities around the globe. I saw things that I wished I had not seen.  I worked so hard as a Marine and so many hours to complete the mission that I only focused on God, Corps, and country (a Marine Corps motto) and subordinated everything else to them…to include my own family, which is the biggest failure of my life. Long story short, I lost faith in the good things in life of which Santa Claus was one.  He and the goodness he represented simply faded away and ceased to exist to me for years.

Then I moved to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. I became the Executive Officer of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12, which had over 700 Marines and Sailors. Every year, a wonderful lady named Hamamoto-san collected things like clothes, blankets, food, toys, etc. She, with the help of MALS-12 Marines and Sailors, delivered these things to orphanages around Iwakuni and even as far north as Hokkaido. She also helped coordinate an annual Christmas Party for local orphans. During one of these Christmas parties, I had a life changing event. Seeing joy on the faces of those children as Marines and Sailors provided them with positive attention was priceless and, even more, when Santa Claus flew in on a Marine Corps helicopter to see them. They were in such awe! I could see how happy they were, and their smiles were bigger than any I’d ever seen. At this Christmas party, I saw how the good actions of people can make others happy.  I saw how people can provide others hope. I saw how people can warm the hearts of others. The Marines and Sailors under the vision of Hamamoto-san made these children happy…. just like Santa Claus.  It was then that I realized there is a bit of Santa Claus in all of us and somehow, we needed to perpetuate all that he represents.

I’m no longer active duty, but I know that serving our nation is difficult even under the best of times. Deployments often separate families and these deployments occur over holidays or special occasions like the birth of a child. Sometimes, entire families move to a place like Okinawa only for their service member to deploy to yet another location with the closest family being some 6000 miles away. Now enter 2020 where serving our nation in the middle of a pandemic is even more difficult. The stress of deployments, followed by quarantine periods, providing logistics to those in quarantine, and finding childcare when officials must close day care centers or schools is a lot to expect of anyone. During times like this, we need to think of others and how we can make them happy or fill their needs. In 2020, it is even more important to focus on the needs of others…. especially our service members and their families.

In the 2020 holiday season, I ask you to find your inner Santa and bring it to the COVID game. There are service members and their families who need our help and need to feel connected to home, which if you didn’t know is the mission of the USO. They often feel disconnected and separated from those whom they love. In today’s COVID-19 environment, we can’t provide support for a large event like the Christmas Party for orphans mentioned above, but we can still do great things for them…just on a smaller scale. So please look for ways to bring a little bit of happiness and joy to our service members and their families this holiday season. On any day before Christmas, please consider doing something that could bring joy to the lives of others. Perhaps you could deliver cookies to a command or barracks, deliver food or soft drinks to those on duty like those at the gates or duty personnel within many commands, deliver toys or food to those families in need, or….. just go caroling with a socially distanced group to bring joy to those in our neighborhoods. Please do the best you can to make a difference in the lives of our service members and their families. You might just find that you find the joy that I did so many years ago. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

Phil VanEtten is a retired Marine Colonel of 27 years.  He is currently the USO Okinawa Area Director.

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