ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - For the first time in 20 years, the US military will not be in the middle of a traditional war this holiday season. There will, of course, still be thousands of troops deployed overseas. But for troops who waged combat during the first 20 years of the war on terror, being home with their families this Christmas is special.
MSgt. Scott Neil pointed to a spot on the map of Afghanistan on his office wall, showing where he went to war.
"We went into this center mountain area," Neil said, adding that it was the same place he celebrated Christmas in 2001 and 2011.
"Christmas is very serene," he said. "Kandahar is surrounded by mountains, so you are just amazed."
As a member of the Army Special Forces, Neil retired in 2011, after 25 years of service. He spent a total of eight Christmases on the front lines, from Panama to Iraq to Afghanistan.
"You had different foxholes singing hymns in different locations," he said. "I cannot gain back the Christmases that I missed."
Neither can the 2 to 3 million individual troops who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during America's 20-year response to 9/11.
Many learned how to celebrate remotely, well before the rest of us did.
"You try to capture a phone call or a voice, listen to your children describe a thing that they got," Neil described.
And his family, of course, prayed for his safety. One year, Christmas Eve brought the opposite of a present.
"We received some fire. The guys put on their war gear and their Santa hats and went out," he remembered. "I have also seen the most imaginative Christmas trees made out of mortar rounds."
His life in the Special Forces, running tactical operations against suspected terrorists, brought all kinds of memories, though.
"There is also the silence of Christmas Eve under the stars," he said.
During an interview in his office in St. Petersburg, he reminded that there are still an untold number of operations happening in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and dozens of other hotspots that require troops to be away for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's.
Therefore, he says, spending so many away teaches this: "It is about love. It is not about plastic toys. It's not about the just-in-time delivery. It is about slowing the pace of the world down."