Little gifts, games remind GIs in Iraq it’s Christmas
RAMADI, Iraq — It was a chilly, low-key Christmas Day for members of the Bamberg, Germany-based 54th Engineer Battalion Sunday as soldiers spoke with family members via computer video links and dined on a sumptuous holiday meal in the festively decked Camp Ramadi mess hall.
The holiday contrasted sharply with the Christmas that battalion soldiers had spent in Iraq two years earlier, when they supported the 3rd Infantry Division on its invasion drive into Baghdad.
“The last Christmas we spent here, we were pretty close to leaving,” said Capt. John Stover, 30, of Scarborough, Maine. “It was a little more festive.”
The 54th, which belongs to the 130th Engineering Brigade, arrived in Ramadi earlier this month, where it’s primary duty has been to clear key roadways of booby traps and homemade bombs.
While most days — even major holidays — blend together in an undefined mass for most soldiers in Iraq, each member of the battalion did awake to a reminder of the day. In the dark of night, each soldier was given his own gift.
“Private companies have been very generous and have sent us a lot of gifts,” Stover said. “We distributed them to everybody. Even if it was something small, they still got something.”
Throughout U.S. bases in Iraq Saturday, soldiers gathered for small parties and exchanged gifts on Christmas eve, while others, who were separated from both their families and their units, struggled to catch helicopters and airplanes to their bases.
“It’s bad enough I’ve got to spend Christmas in Iraq, but at least if I’m going to be here I want to spend it with my buddies,” said one soldier who was awaiting a flight from Griffin Helipad at South Victory in Baghdad.
The soldier, who was trying to get a space-available seat to Ramadi, said he had been waiting five days. When he finally caught a flight early Christmas morning, he grinned broadly when he was greeted by a helicopter crew chief wearing a Santa’s hat on top of his flight helmet.
Later that morning, a group of young staff officers from the 54th met for a game of flag football on the sprawling camp’s makeshift athletic field. In between downs, soldiers swigged nonalcoholic beer from bottles and cheered teammates from the sidelines.
The unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Shawn McGinley, 40, of Philadelphia, stopped by and snapped photographs of the game.
McGinley said that several missions had been planned for the day, but that they had been canceled at the last minute for various reasons.
“We really wanted to stay busy so people weren’t thinking too much about the holiday,” McGinley said. “It’s hard.”
For most of the day Saturday and Sunday, soldiers booked time for video conferences with family members back home in Bamberg. For his own part, McGinley’s holiday treat was to sleep in for another 30 minutes Sunday.
McGinley said that after about a month, soldiers were finally settled into their new home.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve gone from being the new kids on the block to where we know our mission. We’re finding IEDs every day we go out and taking care of them. Now, the challenge is keeping everybody’s head in the game and not getting complacent. Our goal is to bring everybody home. There’s a lot of work that’s got to be done to do that.”