BAGHDAD, Iraq — For at least some U.S. troops in Iraq, Christmas 2003 was mostly a working holiday.

That’s the way it played out for Spc. Lonnie Russell and his buddies in an Abrams tank company in Baghdad, or as his platoon calls the Iraqi capital “The Dad.”

Russell, 26, of Fon De Lac, Wis., is an Abrams loader with the 1st Armored Division’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment. He’s with the company’s 1st Platoon.

They were pulling a 12-hour shift manning a set of security strongpoints between the Sheraton Hotel and the Palestine Hotel. Journalists and private contractors working for the coalition stay at both hotels, and insurgents are known to regard them as targets of high symbolic value.

Just before daybreak Christmas morning, a series of explosions broke the stillness — rocket-propelled grenades that struck the Sheraton, causing no injuries. Similar attacks were made on other targets in the area.

Their platoon leader and platoon sergeant immediately got the troops moving — sending one tank racing down a street to set up a roadblock north of the two hotels, radioing headquarters, keeping tabs on the whereabouts of soldiers.

“Great way to start Christmas morning off. And I thought I was gonna get some sleep,” Russell’s platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pierce, said minutes after radioing a tank crew that if they spotted a vehicle with fleeing insurgents, they were to “kill it.”

“I wasn’t hopin’ for any type of real Christmas,” said Russell. “I mean we were here, so my expectations weren’t high at all.

“In fact, when we got briefed this morning, they told us it was going to be hectic,” he said. “And not one hour later … you can’t underestimate ‘The Dad … .”

Abrams mechanic Pfc. Dallen Tubbs, 20, of Salt Lake City, Utah, was in the tank with Russell when the rounds crashed in the darkness.

“Prior to Christmas Day, we already knew what it was going to be like,” said Tubbs.

“People tell us, ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy New Year,’ stuff like that. But overall the day’s been a pretty hectic day … . I’ll just put it like this: This Christmas was hectic … . This Christmas was crappy.”

Added 1st Lt. Kurt Muniz, 26, of New York City, Platoon Leader, 1st Platoon: “Everybody’s been coming up to us and giving us candy canes and wishing us merry Christmas and saying we appreciate what you’re doing out here.

“I’m not married and I miss Mom and all; I miss being around family,” said Muniz.

“It’s just been a military Christmas. … We know it’s Christmas, but we know we have a job to do and we always put the job higher than any other thing we value.”

Things were somewhat less hectic at Firebase Melody, a walled compound where the division’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, is headquartered. Muniz’s company is attached to the battalion.

The battalion covered the tables in Christmas green and red. They hung decorations — Christmas trees, bunting — also in green and red. Blue plastic bowls were filled with oranges, apples and other fruit.

They laid on a traditional Christmas meal — turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, pies, cakes and served two meals, midday and evening.

Battalion officers pulled guard duty to give the troops a break.

And they needed it. The night before, the battalion had conducted raids as part of the coalition’s Operation Iron Grip — a move aimed at blunting insurgent actions during the Christmas holiday.

The troops pulled back into Melody around 4:30 a.m. Christmas Day, and brought with them 24 detainees, 23 rifles of various types, three pistols, a machinegun, three shotguns, three kits for making homemade explosive devices, quantities of ammunition and cash.

As a gunner in a Bradley fighting vehicle, Sgt. Eric Graessley, 23, of Danville, Calif., took part in the night’s raids, and welcomed the break the battalion gave the troops at Melody.

“Having the officers pulling guard this morning, that was definitely very helpful,” said Graessley. And he enjoyed the Christmas dinner.

Russell, the Abrams loader, took a similar view.

What he wants more than anything is to finish his deployment in Iraq and be reunited with his wife, Carina, and their son Bryce, 4.

“Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt or not go home,” said Russell.

“So in a way, that’s the only Christmas present I want. It’s going to be late, but that’s alright.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up