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Though Christmas has now come and gone, this year I was reminded how serving in Operation Desert Shield/Storm resulted in my darkest, but most memorable, Christmas holiday.

In November that year I received orders to serve with the U.S. Central Command Public Affairs Office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My job was to write about the war effort, escort media pools and support the Desert Shield/Storm commander in his informing the nation about the latest goings-on.

As Christmas Day inched closer, the thought of replacing snow and Santa hats with sand and gas masks, and not spending the most sacred of holidays with my family gnawed at me like a disease.

On Christmas Eve I received letters from my wife, Peggy, and a coffin-sized care package from my sister, Laurie. The goodies contained within these packages provided holiday cheer to the uniformed men and women with whom I served. These were the best-ever Christmas gifts, each offering a lifeline to a world more than 12,000 miles away.

In an effort to provide a little Christmas spirit, an Army soldier set up a green plastic table-top tree in the office. An airman fashioned a paper clip wreath and a Marine corporal created candles out of scented deodorant sticks. Military personnel shed tears as they talked about the war, wondering if they would live to spend another Christmas with their families.

Later that day I wrote a letter to the 6-year-old daughter of an Air Force technical sergeant with whom I became friends. His daughter was stricken with a crippling illness that left her wheelchair-ridden most of her time. She wrote me constantly, each letter more heartfelt and precious than its predecessors. I treasured each letter as a child does a new Christmas present.

I prayed for a speedy end to the insanity and to reunite everyone with their families. My prayers were answered. On Feb. 28, 1991, the Persian Gulf War ended, Two weeks later I was on a military aircraft en route to the United States.

Not everything was joyous in the Dagendesh camp upon my return home. During the war I dropped 35 pounds and struggled to put weight back on to my lanky, 6-foot-1 frame. My serving in the war took a life-threatening toll on my dad’s health, and for years televised news footage of the war ravaged my mental and emotional heartstrings.

During the war I slept with one eye open, staring into the darkness waiting for the enemy to emerge from the shadows. As a result I developed a phobia that for years prevented me from sleeping with the bedroom door open at night.

The hardest pill to swallow came when the youngster with whom I had formed a pen-pal friendship and had hoped to meet one day, died from her illness. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. Her letters were a lifeline to a sane world, each sentence a beacon of light during this dark, troubling time.

Yes, my Desert Shield/Storm Christmas reminds me that wars brings family separation, destruction and death. Because of this, it is my darkest, most memorable Christmas and one I wish I could forget. I hope this new year brings us peace and precious time together.

William J. Dagendesh is an author, writer and retired U.S. Navy chief journalist and editor. He has lived in southern Colorado for 19 years. Contact him with comments or ideas for his column at

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