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Combat Christmas Angel

Tehachapi resident, Christine Maag, is a true combat veteran, having served multiple tours in Iraq as a U.S. Army medic. She is a 17-time national gold medalist in the VA Creative Arts Competition, and has become one of the most recognized veteran participants in festival history.

Normally, entries for the NVCAF are due in early spring and national award winners are notified in early July of their national placement and inclusion into the veterans Arts Festival Show, which is held in a different host city each year.

The NVCAF was cancelled in 2020, due to Covid restrictions, but was re-instated once again this year. veterans were required to enter by an October 1 deadline. All veterans who won their respective categories locally were notified in late October. All local first place entries advanced to be judged nationally and the national first place winners, who will be announced at the end of December, will be invited to the National veterans Creative Arts Festival and Stage Show, which will be held in Bay Pines, Florida, in the spring of 2022.

The following story, written by Christine, won First Place for the National veterans Creative Arts Competition, Greater Los Angeles, in the category of “Military Combat Experience Non-Poetry”. She also placed first for VA Los Angeles in three vocal music categories, and is currently awaiting the announcement of national results in hopes of earning an invitation to participate in the NVCAF.

If any veteran would like more information about the VA therapeutic arts programs, and the NVCAF, please contact The Loop newspaper for Christine’s contact information.

One of the toughest weeks I remember in Iraq was right before Christmas in 2007. Soldiers on deployment always seemed to have mixed emotions during that time. I mean, on one hand, we wanted to be happy and celebrate the holidays. However, it completely sucked being away from home and being in the middle of a desert war!

I had volunteered to be one of the medics supporting the FOB (Forward Operating Base) QRF (Quick Reaction Force). A call came over the radio that a convoy had been struck by an IED, just outside the FOB gates. Being on my second tour, roadside bomb versus convoy was a scene I’d witnessed dozens of times. We geared up and responded to the scene as quickly as our vehicles could carry us.

I fully expected to hit the ground running. The entire ride was spent prepping IV bags and making sure airway tools and hemorrhage supplies were readily accessible. Once we arrived, we were immediately ushered behind a barrier and told that one of the vehicles involved was a fuel truck. We were ordered to shelter in place until the risk of explosion was negated. As we were being given those orders, I glanced past the officer barking them at us, and asked, “Where are the wounded, Sir?”

In the moment those words crossed my lips I realized there was a soldier still in the cab of the fuel tanker! I think the officer instinctively knew exactly what I was thinking, because, as I made a move in the truck’s direction, he put his arm up, blocked me, pushed me backward, and said, “Doc, there’s nothing you can do for him… he’s already gone.”

Some hours later I helped a team from mortuary affairs remove his remains from the burned out tanker. He was from another unit, but, like me, was part of the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg. A brother, one I would never know. I kept thinking to myself how it was a good thing that he would have a closed casket funeral. His family would at least be spared knowing the extent of what happened to him. It was just before Christmas, after all, and his poor family was about to be visited by a death notification detail.

I lost my mom right after the holidays, in 1997. I remember how somber Christmases were for many years after she died. Every year, when the first Christmas trees hit stores, the pain came flooding right back. I suspected it would be the same for the family of the paratrooper. I felt like I was choking back tears all day, but duty called, and when others need you, you find the strength to carry on.

I had to go to the Combat Support Hospital for a supply run. One of the nurses told me they’d admitted a young Iraqi female patient the night before. She’d suffered both burn trauma and crush injuries when an insurgent mortar round destroyed her tiny home, killing her parents. She looked like a miniature mummy, lying in the ICU. My heart broke when I saw all of the interventions taken to sustain her. I could tell from the level of support she was receiving, she would likely not survive.

When I got back to my bunk that evening, I had a sinking feeling, the depths of which I had never felt. I’d become so utterly disgusted by the loss of human life! I’d grown tired of being handed situations that were beyond my power as a medic to improve. I was angry at life, at war, even at God! Most of all, I was angry that it was almost Christmas and I couldn’t find a single bit of joy!

Then it occurred to me. I couldn’t do anything for the soldier in the truck. He was gone before I arrived. This was war. There would be more like him. The Iraqi girl, however, was clinging to her life. She was still present. I could still make a difference for her.

I went to the CSH and sat at the little girl’s bedside. I held her hand… talked to her... read to her… I even sang to her. I remembered my mom telling me when she was in the hospital battling cancer, the moments when I believed her to be unconscious and incapable of hearing me, I was wrong. She heard every word I said in those moments and they reminded her to fight to come back.

What I could do for the little girl was let her know she wasn’t alone, remind her to fight. Word got around the CSH that I’d become a regular visitor in my down time, in between missions. When I was on duty, and couldn’t be there, in the true spirit of Christmas giving, other soldiers took my place.

Unfortunately, the little girl passed away quietly on the fifth evening of her stay in the ICU – Christmas Eve. When she left this world, she was surrounded by people who loved her. The entire ICU staff, 17 more soldiers who’d given up their off-duty time to sit with her, myself included, and one translator who led us all in a prayer for her soul, in Arabic.

I went to service in the chapel that night, and afterward the Chaplain approached me to thank me for coming, despite what had happened earlier that evening. I remember telling him how angry I was and that I almost didn’t attend the Christmas Eve service. I’d said so many prayers that week for my little girl in the ICU. I had all but worn out my knees and I felt betrayed that not a single one of them had been answered! Then the Chaplain asked, “Well, what exactly did you pray for?” I said, “For God to heal that little girl, of course. I prayed so hard for Him to ease her pain and now her life is over”. The Chaplain responded, “Is it? Are we not freed from our worldly suffering, and given new life, when we attain the Kingdom of Heaven?”

I felt tears instantly streaming down my face. For the first time it occurred to me God had answered my prayers, just not the way that I had wanted Him to answer.

I didn’t get a single physical gift that Christmas. But that Christmas will forever go down in the annals of my mind as the year I received the greatest non-tangible gift – a valuable lesson contained in the magnanimous level of giving I witnessed in the days leading up to that holiday, a reminder about the importance of being present in the lives of those who need you, from a tiny girl I knew nothing about, but came to love… and a reminder of the power of prayer.

I spent the rest of that tour providing medical support during some of the heaviest fighting of the Iraq War. The lessons of that Christmas became very valuable to me. Our newspaper back home wrote a story about that Christmas and dubbed our unit “The Combat Christmas Angels” for everything we did to help the little girl. I remember it differently. To me, it was the little girl who will forever be my angel.