WAKE ISLAND ATOLL –
When some people think about celebrating Christmas with their family, some of the usual things that come to mind are cold temperatures, snow, Christmas trees, bundling up to a warm fire with hot cocoa and a blanket, but for four military members and dozens of contractors at Wake Island, Christmas is celebrated with sunshine, 80 degree temps, palm trees and thousands of miles between them and their family.
The tiny spec of land known as Wake Island is located roughly 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, 1,300 miles east of Guam and 1,900 miles Southeast of Tokyo and is about 10 square miles in size. Wake Island serves as a platform for Trans Pacific air traffic and critical missile defense tests. For the four military members stationed there, it is a one-year unaccompanied remote assignment. Some contractors have been stationed at Wake Island for many years while civilians who work and live on the island have been there for decades.
There is nothing on Wake Island that reminds you of Christmas, but I think it is what you make it,” said Jeff Gehlke, Missile Defense Agency site manager. “Christmas is a state of mind and your surroundings should not interfere with that. You have to look at it as an opportunity, but it is not for everyone.”
Gehlke said there are about 110 people who live and work on the island and you learn to have a family on the island.
“Since this is a small island, you get to know everyone, their nuances, where they are from, how their family is doing,” Gehlke continued. “On this island, we look out for one another much like you would in a military squadron or your neighbors on your block.”
The island is resupplied with resources about every two weeks via aircraft, and a barge about once or twice per year. Some contractors will catch the resupply rotator to Honolulu, Hawaii, for some down time or to catch commercial air home for a visit. Like most short tours, the four military members go home for about a month around mid-tour.
Mr. Gehlke just returned from Honolulu and took on some Santa Claus responsibilities.
“I just came back from Honolulu and did some Christmas shopping for all of my Wake Island neighbors,” Gehlke said. “My neighbors gave me a list of items they are running short of. I left the island with one suitcase half full with my things and a C-bag (duffel bag) rolled up inside. I came back to the island with 2 carry-on bags, the C-bag and my suitcase, which were full of gifts and items needed from my island neighbors. Whoever goes off the island does the shopping for all. We take care of one another.”
Even though the tropical island appears to have no Christmas qualities, it does not stop the Wake Island residents from celebrating the holidays.
“We have had some good Christmas parties here in the past,” Gehlke said. “More than likely, we will have a nice Christmas dinner at the dining facility, which in the past has been lobster or steak followed by a Christmas party at the Drifter’s Reef, (the only pub on the island). There may be some dancing, appetizers and a few drinks on the house. On Christmas Eve or Christmas day, there will be a church service as well.”
For Tech. Sgt. Mark Harrison, Detachment 1, Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center contracting officer representative, this will be his first and only Christmas on the island. He is currently 3 months in to his 12-month tour.
“I’m not one to really celebrate the holidays, but I do look forward to a nice meal and an extensive conversation with my family,” he said. “Our phones on Wake Island are capable of calling anywhere in the world and it is free for us, which is one of the biggest perks here.”
Most who are far from family usually do some sort of video teleconferencing, like Skype or Facetime, but that is not an option for the Wake Island residents.
“Our bandwidth here is very limited,” Harrison said. “If you wait until most of the island residents go to sleep, you may be able to e-mail photos back and forth with loved ones, but there is no way we can Skype. There are some limitations on the island, but all in all, I like it here.”
Mr. Gehlke agreed.
“The island has great camaraderie and I think Christmas here is actually more cheery than most people would think, just without the cold and snow,” Gehlke concluded. “Christmas is more of a state of mind and how you treat people, it can happen anytime and anywhere. Although warm and secluded, we are not forgotten as Santa Claus still makes a visit.”