Editor's note: This story is the third in a series that focuses on the days leading up to Christmas – a time which may bring difficult memories of past observances.
For many people, the holiday season brings to mind warm thoughts of being with their families. For others, however, it can be a time of sadness.
This may be especially true for those who serve overseas in the military.
One local man who has seen this first-hand is Chaplain (Major) Elmer "Sandy" Aakre.
Minister at Vermillion's First Baptist Church, Aakre served with the National Guard from 1988 to 2010. He was deployed several times, the longest being to Iraq from December 2003 to March 2005 with the 153rd Engineer Battalion.
Christmas can be a difficult time when family members are so far away, he said.
"Christmas was a tearful time for these guys," Aakre said. "One guy had a son born on Christmas day. He said, 'I've been gone most of his life. What the heck kind of father am I?' Everybody just said, 'Well, you're like the rest of us.'"
To help compensate, the unit had an enormous dinner that lasted for three hours.
"There was more than anybody had ever eaten," Aakre said. "We mostly just talked through it – munch and eat and talk. … You got to see everybody's tradition, and what was important to them."
Aakre also arranged a bit of fun by renting three camels, one of which he describes as "huge."
"If you wanted to get on that camel, the Bedouins would make him sit down, you'd jump on him, they'd make him stand up and we'd take pictures like crazy," he said. "And then run like crazy to the Internet and say, 'Dear folks, I know you're at Grandma's today and you're having a wonderful time, but look at what I'm doing!'"
Being in a poverty-stricken country like Iraq puts things in perspective, Aakre said.
"We have so much and we don't really appreciate it," he said. "We saw kids playing with soccer balls made out of rags. No shoes. They were just happier than clams to have something to play with."
Before the 153rd left Iraq, they delivered to the children one dozen soccer balls, three needles and an air pump that were donated by a church in Arizona.
"When they gave those kids a soccer ball they thought they were in Heaven. Now they're pros," Aakre said. "Something that small meant so very, very much to them."
This point was driven home to Aakre when he would go fishing at a nearby river, which he describes as "unbelievably filthy."
"The water is just as black as a Diet Coke," he said. "All the sewage goes in the river, you've got dead camels in the river, you've got women washing clothes in the river and guys with gas stations dumping their oil in the river. And kids swimming in the river."
Despite this, the river was home to many Eurasian carp, which Aakre would catch in his spare time.
"As soon as I'd catch one, there'd be a little kids sitting there with his hands out," he said. "I'd say, 'Where did that little rascal come from?' They just seemed to come right out of the ground."
Once the child had the fish, he would take it home to one of the tiny makeshift houses standing nearby.
"(His mother) had a small hatchet there, and she'd just chop it into chunks – didn't scale it or gut it – throw it in the frying pan, dump in some rice and they'd all sit down and eat," Aakre said. "I'd catch another fish, they'd run up."
The holiday season can be lonely even for those who aren't overseas, which is why the Aakres open their home to friends who would otherwise be alone.
"We had 13 people at Thanksgiving. We do the same thing at Christmas," he said. "We believe the church has to be a family, and if they're family, you invite your family over."
The memories that come from spending time with family are some of the biggest reasons the season is so special, Aakre said.
"There's nothing better than a kid having a present, sitting down, throwing the present in the corner and playing with the box," he laughed.
– Look in future issues of the Vermillion Plain Talk to find stories where local church leaders give their views on the holiday season.