The PJ Tatler

A Very Kerry Christmas: On Visions of Sugar Plums in Vietnam

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to cheer up family members of foreign service officers posted alone abroad with a tale from the Vietnam War.

The State Department hosted the officers’ families for holiday reception yesterday. Kerry noted that there’s been a 350 percent jump in the number of FSOs who have to serve in unaccompanied posts — leaving family behind for security reasons — since 9/11.

“And it obviously is a sad commentary on the challenges that we face in the world beyond our control, where countries are in turmoil, places are in transition,” Kerry said.

“…I want to emphasize that as we gather here for what is a celebration, a festive time, we do so mindful that in a lot of vital but troubled places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, Pakistan, where yesterday’s news was just horrendous, we have people who are working to carry the torch for America and for universal values that go with the presence of these committed public servants.”

Kerry stressed that he knows “personally” that “it is never easy when you are separated by thousands of miles and the office and the home are, in a sense, divided, and employee from family, and it’s complicated.”

“Obviously, this holiday season, a lot of you are yearning for the idea of being together with your loved ones, and we understand that. There are going to be empty seats at a dinner table, which is hard to deal with. There are fewer hands to decorate a tree or more packages that get lugged to the post office instead of being handed over personally. We understand every aspect of what it means to be here, part of this family, this particular family within the family,” he said.

Which led to his personal anecdote:

And I know sometimes there’s tension, anxious moments, even tears. Skype has a lot of benefits, but hugging ain’t one of them. So I’ll just share with you, 46 years ago — my staff tells me it was 46 years ago — it was 1968, that I remember — 1968, Christmas, I was in a river in Vietnam up in — near the Co Chien River, for anybody who knows what that means. And I was on a patrol boat. We were out there alone at night. The tracers were flying in the sky, the flares were dropping, sounds of eruptions of machine gun fire and other things here and there, and it was Christmas Eve. And there was supposed to be a truce, but the truce was broken. And I remember thinking how absurd that was, but it was life. And I took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, went up and sat on the top of the roof of the boat, and just sat there. And frankly, I had visions of, really, sugar plums, chestnuts, New England in the snow. But what I learned was that the family of people around you make up for a lot. And I also learned that nothing ever makes up for the meaning of the quality of that service, of being able to be there for your country and make a difference.