Christmas ‘like any other day’ for U.S. troops downrange

First Lt. Christina Hayes, 25, of Atlanta, Ga. with the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Afghanistan, displays the spirit of the season, topping off her desert fatigues with a Santa hat on Christmas Day at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.


By JAMES WARDEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 26, 2008

BAGHDAD — The scents of candied yams, turkey, ham and other ingredients for a Christmas feast waft through the bottom floor of Joint Security Station Comanche. Cards from home decorate the walls. Lights twine around the staircase railing.

Sleepy eyed soldiers slowly emerge from the crowded rooms they share. The platoon was up until the early morning on a patrol, now they’re headed out again. In full battle rattle, the soldiers troop right past all the festive trappings and get ready for another day’s work in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. This is Iraq, after all, and the holiday spirit only goes so far.

The morose feelings are something no one really talks about. Soldiers being soldiers, they ease the tensions by joking about the situation. Much of the humor is dark: Radio reports that a roadside bomb hit Rudolph, a target packet drawn up on Santa Claus as if he were another enemy fighter.

"Happy birthday Jesus," patently irreligious soldiers shout to each other.

Few are fooled.

"I think people try to play off that they don’t care, but I could tell a lot of the guys were sad," said Sgt. Robert Maroney.

"It’s always depressing when you’re away from home," added Sgt. 1st Class Fred Hampton, Maroney’s platoon sergeant.

The soldiers aren’t neglected by any means. A nation that cares about them has showered them with cards, Christmas decorations and care packages.

The men also seek solace in their families. Spc. William Baker said he’s been talking to his wife every day — more than he usually does — because of the holidays. Such calls are free on Christmas. The unit has even arranged video teleconference calls between soldiers and their families, but that only works for soldiers whose spouses stayed in Germany.

Yet the soldiers are far from the postmarks on those letters, and that’s a distance that an all too brief phone call can’t completely bridge. They grab their weapons, set their helmets on their heads and pile into their MRAPS for another patrol just like the hundreds that came before it.

"Just knowing that it’s Christmas adds a little of the holiday spirit to the day," said Spc. Sean Harriman. "But other than that, it’s just like any other day."

But the soldiers aren’t alone today. NCOs with two, three, even four Christmases away from home watch the younger men to make sure they’re doing alright. Battle buddies chat about what they’d be doing if they were celebrating the holiday in their hometown. Those with off time watch the same time-worn holiday movies that play on every American channel.

The pace and the mood were similar for troops deployed to Afghanistan.

At Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, Christmas got an early start, with Dutch and Belgian troops celebrating at the Luxembourg mess hall on Christmas Eve. At the "Canada House," that night, Canadian forces got to see Kathleen Edwards, an Ottawa alt-country singer. Soldiers got two beers each, if they were so inclined.

The sound of joyful voices singing emanated from the Fraise Chapel, where a lively Gospel service was in progress.

The spirit of Christmas seemed to have no effect on air operations at Kandahar, where cargo planes, helicopters and fighter jets took off at regular intervals.

At the Niagara mess hall, lines started forming outside the door well before 1100 hours, when the first serving of Christmas dinner started. But after the initial rush, business throughout the afternoon appeared no busier than any other day.

The food inside was standard holiday fare, although with a decidedly-deployed flavor: roasted canned turkey, roasted pork loin, stuffing and gravy, candied yams, English peas, mashed potatoes and boiled carrots.

Sgt. Chris Gutowski, 23 of Wausau, Wis., Sgt. Brad Ingram, 29, of Louisville, Ky., and Spc. Dustin Lambert, 22, of Terre Haute, Ind., all of them Apache helicopter crew chiefs with the 101st Airborne Division, stopped to chat after eating Christmas lunch at the Niagara mess hall.

"It was pretty good, I can’t complain," said Gutowski. "It was better than usual."

The three soldiers said they really had no special plans for Christmas. "We just got off a 12 to 13 hour shift," said Ingram. "So, we’re about to go to bed."

But Lambert, said he planned to stay up for several more hours so that he could talk to his wife.

At the Baghdad joint security station, some of the soldiers have even arranged gift exchanges. Xbox games, DVD sets and workout supplements are popular. The $50 to $80 price range of the gifts is heftier than the average office-party gift giving, but that’s OK.

"It’s the only present they’ll be opening this year — unless they get something mailed over here," Hampton said.

A few say they are even happy to be where they are.

"Being here is more like home to me than being back in the States," Harriman said. "I know these guys better than my own family."

True, this isn’t a Christmas that anyone back home would recognize — all the food and the greeting cards and the Christmas lights can’t hide that. But the sentiments are the same: A group of people who care about one another stopping for a moment to appreciate what they have.

"It’s not easy," Walker said. "It’s hard. All of it’s hard. You gotta depend on each other to get through."

Stripes’ Drew Brown contributed to this report.

Sgt. Mike Dean, 28, of Hamilton, Ohio, Sgt. Wade Pommer, 27, of Bowler, Wis., and Spc. Jordan Carpenter, 21, of Bartlett, Tenn., eat Subway sandwiches for a late Christmas Day lunch on the boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The three soldiers said they would probably eat traditional Christmas dinner at the mess hall later in the evening.