"Two Christmases ago, in a "Christmas wish for our troops serving in harm's way," I expressed my empathy and admiration for the tens of thousands of our brave men and women who were serving in hostile territory , away from their loved ones, attempting to, in some fashion, celebrate Christmas -- the most joyful and most sacred of all holidays.
"I can only imagine the emotions, the sadness, the loneliness our troops will experience this Christmas, but I do know for a fact that every American will be thinking of them throughout the holiday season, praying for them, thanking them for their sacrifice and wishing them as Merry a Christmas as possible. Most of all, Americans will be wishing them a safe and speedy return home, to their loved ones, so they will be able to celebrate every Christmas henceforth as they celebrate this one in their thoughts, in their dreams and in their prayers
"Thank God, this Christmas, for thousands of our troops serving in Iraq, the words from that hauntingly beautiful song, "I'll be home for Christmas," will finally come true and not "only in [their] dreams."
"Let us rejoice with these brave men and women and with their loved ones, but let us not forget the approximately 100,000 troops who once again will be spending Christmas in the cruel battlefields of Afghanistan -- battlefields where the Newborn King has never been heard of; battlefields where peace on earth and good will to men are just foreign words and battlefields that have already claimed almost 2,000 of our finest.
"To them we can only say again -- hope again -- that next Christmas we will not have to hunt for appropriate words to express our Christmas wishes to them, but that spending it with a father, mother, son or daughter, husband or wife back home will say it all.
"To those who are finally coming home for Christmas from Iraq with their heads held high and their hearts overjoyed and to the more than 1 million troops who have served in Iraq before them, Americans not only wish you the most joyous Christmas ever but also have a very special message: While America was divided on the politics and the policies that put you in harm's way, know that Americans supported you 100 percent of the way, 100 percent of the time.
"While at times you lacked the equipment and protection you needed, and while at times you did not receive the quality physical and mental health treatment you deserved, rest assured that Americans demanded that our government get it right. Most important, know that Americans mourned and regretted every one of the nearly 4,500 brave lives we lost in Iraq and that Americans care for every one of the more than 32,000 injured servicemen and women.
"While, even now, some of our returning veterans lack the care, the attention, the benefits and the opportunities that they have earned, Americans stand united in demanding that we get this right, too.
"While no one can predict the future of Iraq, because of you that country is on its way to freedom, democracy and much-needed peace and stability, fragile as it all may be. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: You have given it your all, and more. You have served most honorably -- many of you for two, three, four or five tours -- and have gone so many times above and beyond the call of duty as reflected by your numerous awards and decorations, including four Medals of Honor.
"You are America's best and America recognizes your efforts and sacrifices, but equally the suffering and the hardships that your families have had to endure in the past 8½ years. America owes you a tremendous debt of gratitude, a hero's welcome, and wishes you and your loved ones the Merriest of Christmases and health, happiness and peace in all your New Years ahead.
"A version of this column appeared in the Dec. 21 print edition of the Stars and Stripes"
Kenneth Stepp salutes the American veterans who bravely served in Iraq during the many years of our military occupation there. Kenneth Stepp.