Brad Wenstrup

The Heart of Christmas


The holiday season is here, which means A Charlie Brown Christmas and other classic re-runs are back on TV. Sunday sermons, local columnists, and Hallmark movies all teach us about the “true meaning of Christmas.” No doubt you’re familiar with the lessons: valuing gratitude over greed and helping others. I agree with these sentiments, but I’d also like to share a story of giving that encapsulates a lot of what’s worth celebrating this Christmas.

From 2005 to 2006, I served as a combat surgeon in Iraq. We took care of injured American troops, as well as detainees and injured and ill civilians. One day, I was on the phone with my sister and she asked if I needed anything from back home. I said I was fine; the Army feeds me, clothes me, and gives me the tools I need to do my job. But I knew the Iraqi people had lived and suffered under a horrible regime for decades. So I told her about the Iraqis, especially the children, who had nothing.

My sister coordinated support back home, and soon individuals, churches, and local companies like Cincinnati Bell and ProScan Imaging were sending us toys, hygiene products, t-shirts, and school supplies. We were astounded by the outpouring of support. The chaplain on base helped me put together our outreach program, dubbed “Operation Goodwill Gifts.”

Operation Goodwill Gifts was one of the highlights of my time in Iraq. Roberto Clemente, the Baseball Hall of Famer, once said “if you have the chance to make life better for others, and you fail to do so, you’re wasting your time on earth.” Through all of our human weaknesses, I take comfort in knowing that the United States is the most philanthropic nation in the world. We do try to make life better for others, even those we don’t know and will never meet. We donate more of our time and money than any country in history.

There were a few joyful days in this war-torn area, when I’d hand a child a gift, as simple as a yo-yo or school supplies, and tell them:

“These are from the American people, not the government.”

The children and their parents would reply, hand over heart.

Shukran, shukran.

“Thank you, thank you.”

That Christmas I spent in Iraq was special. I missed my family in Ohio, but I was with my military family. Out of everything bad that comes with poverty and war, Operation Goodwill Gifts was a chance to do something good. That was special. And I hope it showed those Iraqi families that we cared, that our hearts and their hearts were not so different. 


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