Marilyn Hershey
When the kids were still living at home, one of our traditions was to read through the Christmas story before we opened gifts. It helped bring all of us back to the central reason our family celebrates the season.

As the kids grew older, they enjoyed being a part of that reading, and we loved handing it over to them. One year will always stand out in my memory. Kelby, at his very young age, wanted to take charge of that task. He was not necessarily at the age when he was reading through chapters, but he wanted to take a crack at it so we handed over the book.

His version of the Christmas story came out loud, clear, and unique to his personality. We were not too far into the Christmas story before the angels had swords, the shepherds turned into soldiers, and the new baby in the manger had an upgrade in protection.

Kelby has always had a eye on soldiers and protection; after receiving toy G.I. Joe soldiers one year, he placed them in the Christmas tree. They were on duty to watch over the gifts and ornaments.

It is no surprise that, years later, he followed his childhood passion and joined the U.S. military. He is still serving our country in this capacity, and I have no doubt that he will for many more.

The first year that Kelby was overseas serving our country, he missed Christmas. I decided it was a good year to jump-start his childhood tradition. I dug out the little green men and placed them in the tree among the decorations.

I will be honest, the years he has been on his tour of duty rather than sitting around the family dinner table were grappling moments for me. I had to keep reminding myself that the fact that he was not physically around for the holiday gatherings was minor in comparison to what many other families were going through.

By the time he served his third tour over the month of December, it did not phase me nearly as much. I resurfaced the G.I. Joes and put them in the tree as a reminder that protection and sacrifice come in many different forms. I even upgraded the security and placed a Blackhawk Down at the top of the tree to keep watch over the star.

The extra protection in the Christmas tree has become one of my favorite Christmas traditions, and that holds whether he is serving overseas or sitting around the table. Silly as it is, when I walk past the tree it reminds me of our soldier and makes me smile. Years that he is actively in protect and defend mode, I need those little things to give me a smile.

As a farm family, we are not alone in having a son in the armed services. I recently heard Secretary Tom Vilsack speak on this when he referenced the fact that 2 percent of the country feeds us, 2 percent of the country protects us, and it is not uncommon for the same family that is feeding us to also have a son or daughter protecting our country.

I find it interesting that two of the most valued resources in our country, our food and our security, come from like-minded families. Two essentials in life; both give us quality of life, sustain our bodies, and give us privileges that are almost too numerous to mention. Food and security sustain our lives in different ways, but both are gifts that should not be taken for granted.

This was reinforced for me through a conversation I had with a young lady who was from a major city. She was living in the southern part of the country, and when our paths crossed, we started a casual conversation. I mentioned living on a dairy farm, as I often do, and the chat turned toward the farm. She asked about the animals, where our milk goes, and she wanted to know, “How bad are those regulations?”

I was a bit taken back by her knowledge and the directness of her questions, but I was more than happy to answer them. We conversed a bit more, and she finally said, “You know, we need farmers because we need food. And I want good food that I can afford.”

This amazing young lady had all my attention at this point, and we talked a bit longer about our safe and affordable food system. As we parted, she left me with one more thought, “My food and my protection. Gotta have those two things.”

She could not have wrapped up our conversation with a prettier bow than to acknowledge the importance, value, and connection of our food and our protection.

This is not a connection that we often put together. However, especially during this time of year, it is front and center in my mind because of the time commitment our son has given to protecting our country and because of our obvious position in producing food.

It has caused me to rethink my Christmas tree decorations. I think I’m going to add a herd of little Holsteins to my tree, right beside the little green military men.

Thank you to all who serve. Thank you to all who farm. And a special thank you to the farm families who give us both. Our food and our protection are true gifts.

The author and her husband, Duane, own and operate a 550-cow dairy in Cochranville, Pa.