On the Waterfront – Kris Kringle’s Critically Cautionary Christmas Carol

(Pensacola, Florida; Dec. 1, 2022) – The holiday season is upon us!

For Christians such as myself, the Christmas season marks the birth of Jesus Christ.  For Jews, Hanukkah commemorates the retaking of Jerusalem during the 2nd Century B.C.E., as well as the Miracle of the Oil (when the supply of lamp oil, only enough for one day, lasted for seven days).  For Muslims, this marks the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, prayer, and community.  These are but a few cultural and religious traditions observed by humanity this time of year. 

Most December traditions share something beyond their timing; this is a time of year when we’re reminded to look out for the less fortunate.

This might be an odd sea story for Christmas, but its applicability is unquestionably relevant this time of year.

Ranger 22, an EP-3E ARIES II aircraft belonging to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron TWO (VQ-2) sits in front of the VQ-2 hangar on board Naval Station Rota, Spain. (U.S. Navy photo by YN3 Nathanael Miller. March 23, 2000 /RELEASED.)

After I enlisted in the Navy, I was assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron TWO (VQ-2), an EP-3E ARIES II recon squadron forward-deployed to Naval Station Rota, Spain.  VQ-2 flew the EP-3E aircraft for missions, and the P-3C Orion for training (the EP-3E was a variant of the P-3 airframe).  I was an admin clerk at the time.

The Kosovo War began raging in late 1998 when the Kosovo Albanians revolted against ethnic cleansing by the Yugoslav Serbians.  NATO began supporting the Kosovo Albanians with airstrikes in March of 1999.  As a land-based recon squadron in Spain, VQ-2 had been hip-deep in supporting the NATO observations—and later airstrikes—since the conflict erupted in 1998.

I was recovering from a motorcycle wreck in March of 1999 (some yahoo pulled out in from of me in a roundabout and I had to dump my bike).  I tore my knees all to hell, an injury that never quite needed surgery to repair, but still left me unable to run by 2006.  I also busted my left thumb’s metacarpal bone into three pieces when my body weight crashed down on my left hand.  I’d only been back in the hangar for a couple of weeks after convalescent leave when this story happened.

VQ-2 volunteered to collect, sort, and pack up donations from American personnel on Rota for the Kosovo refugees.  The arrangement made sense; our hangar was already on the flight line.  Once we got the donations sorted into triwall boxes, we could hand them to the Air Force for transport to Kosovo.

Triwalls containing sorted donations (and trash to be disposed of!) for the Kosovo refugees are filled by my shipmates in VQ-2. (U.S. Navy photo by YN3 Nathanael Miller. March, 1999 / RELEASED)

I was still operating one-handed at this time, so I mostly used the new-fangled digital camera the squadron had recently purchased.  The Yeoman who ran the public affairs office was down range in Crete, and, as I was already known to be an inveterate shutterbug, I was largely tasked with taking photos since I could handle the camera one-handed.

Some of the donated items shocked me at first, but then I realized the value they carried.  For example, one might look askance at the donations of expensive fur coats and high-value men’s trench coats.  However, think about it; who cares if that fur coat cost its original owner thousands of dollars?  It’s a coat.  Fur coats and trench coats can easily keep someone alive in winter conditions.  Same with nice leather shoes.  They might be fancy, but they were in good condition and would provide a displaced refugee with solid protection for their feet.  Many of the toys were clearly used, but well-cared for and would bring joy to children in need.

What blew my mind was the thoughtless, selfish virtue-signaling of those who donated the high heels and stiletto heels, the slinky black cocktail dresses, the old gym shorts that were stained and frayed (washed and clean, but stained and frayed), and the shattered, useless toys.  I mean, just what in the name of John Q. Arbuckle would a refugee use high heels for on muddy, war-torn roads?!  What kind of jerk (word used intentionally) thinks it’s ‘charitable giving’ to hand off old, stained clothes that are threadbare and more suited for use as a rag than as a garment.

My shipmates and I spent several days sorting that junk.  Only about 1/3 of it ended up being items that were actually useful (and in a good enough condition to be used).  I’m not kidding you; 2/3 of what we went through was trash.  Pure, useless, unadulterated trash.  These virtue-signaling fools didn’t give a thought to what the refugees needed.  These ‘paragons of generosity’ saw a chance to clean the crap out of their closest and leave it us to sort out.  Piles and piles of useless, inappropriate junk ended up going to the landfill because we couldn’t send it on to Kosovo.

YN3 Brown (my chief!) carries clothing from a donation bag to a triwall for packing. (U.S. Navy photo by YN3 Nathanael Miller. March 1999 / RELEASED).

Finally, the last insult was the failure of aid agencies to actually pick up the donations we spent all that time sorting.  The Air Force couldn’t just fly the material to Kosovo and drop it off.  They needed to transfer it to a civilian aid agency which could then distribute it…but none would take the crates of donations.  The donations sat on a forgotten corner of the flight line for months until being thrown away because the war was over!

Talk about an infuriating outcome, especially after the days we spent sorting the useful items from the trash!

I never forgot just how cold, just how unfeeling so many people who ‘donated’ were.  Much like celebrities and politicians who tell us to get rid of our cars, eat insects, and stop traveling to save the planet (all the while puttering around on private jets and multimillion-dollar yachts), many of these ‘donors’ were more concerned with their own convenience and image than they were with doing the right thing.  They used the aid effort as an excuse to get rid of crap they didn’t care about, and they didn’t care about the fact that crap was useless to those in need.

That’s the moral of Kris Kringle’s Critically Cautionary Christmas Carol.  Many of our traditions call on us to give to the needy this time of year.  That is a worthy effort.  However, we must be cognizant of what we’re donating.  Charitable giving is not an excuse to clean a closet.  We can do that anytime.

Part of charitable giving is seeing the need that exists, not the ‘need’ we’d prefer for our own convenience.  Let this time of festivals, celebrations, charity, and (for Christians) commemorating the birth of our Savior be a time where we see, really see, those in need and what they actually need.

Enjoy the holidays!  Dive deep into your traditions and celebrations, just remember that charitable giving is about the other person, not us.  Even if you can do but little, doing the little you can just might be the difference between life and death for someone in need!

Check out my video on this story at: 

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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