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BAGHDAD — "Merry Christmas" is a phrase you say at your peril to deployed troops around here. Depending on the recipient’s state of mind at the moment, it can earn you anything from a heartfelt reply to a glare.

And don’t even start with the Christmas carols.

"Most soldiers don’t want to see anything that reminds them of Christmas," Army Spc. Valorie McKinney 22, said. "It just bums them out because it reminds them they’re not with their family."

But like their fathers and grandfathers in wars before them, the troops make the best of the hand they’re dealt.

In the International Zone, that meant Santa hats on sergeants major, Christmas cards from grade-school kids addressed to "any soldier," felt and cotton-wool stockings hung in odd corners with names spelled out in glitter, a party on Christmas Eve and lavish spreads with prime rib on Christmas Day in the dining facilities.

In between regular duty hours, or waiting for flights to new bases, soldiers watched Christmas concerts on television or funny seasonal movies such as "Christmas with the Kranks."

For many Americans in Iraq, their religious faith sustained them through an otherwise lonely season.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in the International Zone was close to standing room only, as Marines in dusty boots toting heavy weapons knelt next to civilians in suits and ties.

The congregation prayed for peace in Iraq. They prayed for their families at home. And, with many tears wiped unashamed, they prayed for the men and women who died fighting this war.

"Don’t feel alone," Father Joseph Lim, a military chaplain and Catholic priest, told the congregates during the service.

"We are united in this," Lim said, as he gestured to the gathered crowd. "United in this bond that is deeper than the sea — the love of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Others found peace in more down-to-earth places. For McKinney, it was her dentist’s office.

McKinney, a member of a large, rambunctious Glen Rose, Texas, family, was sent to Iraq a week before Christmas.

To make matters even harder, McKinney had to leave her husband of one month, also a soldier, back at Fort Sill, Okla.

As part of her last-minute scramble for her yearlong deployment, McKinney had to get the dentist to clear a persistent tooth problem for travel.

"So I was in the dentist’s office, and [the receptionist] was playing Christmas music when she was going to get my records," McKinney recalled as she sat on a cot in an overheated, dusty tent, at Balad on Dec. 23, waiting to catch a flight to her new base.

"When she came back, I told her her Christmas music was making me want to shoot myself in the head."

McKinney laughed and twisted her thick gold wedding ring, the way people do when they aren’t used to wearing one yet.

"I was just joking around, but she gave me some good advice that really helped me out."

"She basically said it’s not being with your family on the holidays, it’s making family of who you’re with."

McKinney said she thought about that for a while, and she thinks she understands what the woman was talking about.

"Soldiers are like your second family. You don’t get to choose each other — you know, just like anybody’s family," she said. "Nobody has a perfect family. It’s not always great, but that’s who you’re with all the time, and that’s who you depend on. You go through really hard times with each other."


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