EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Lance Cpl. Steve Schmitt had to burn his Christmas tree.
The Orlando, Fla., man's family mailed him the 18-inch plastic tree to stick in the sand beside his sleeping bag. But the Marine gunner's platoon is at the front, breaking camp every few days and moving across the desert like the Bedouin who wander this land.
So before they moved last time, Schmitt said the grunts of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine, burned most of the gifts and even some of the goodies that were sent by the tons from the folks back home.
With upwards of 75 pounds to heft on your back, that's the life of a soldier on the front lines, said Schmitt, 21.
He won't have much to do on this, his first Christmas abroad: "Just sit and play in the sand. Maybe write some letters and think of home."
Sure, there will be turkey and ham, prayers and variety shows. Bob Hope is even coming to entertain some of the luckier troops, no doubt with his golf clubs and a few jokes about Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest sand trap.
Yet for many of the 400,000 soldiers facing what could be a ferocious war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Christmas will be much like any other day since President Bush sent troops to the desert nearly five months ago for Operation Desert Shield.
A little bit boring, and a little bit lonely.
With virtually every man and woman interviewed this past week, in dozens of random conversations from desert-hardened Marines to newly arrived National Guardsmen, there was a gloomy anticipation of Christmas. Those in the best of spirits were the career servicemen and women, particularly those in the elite corps who have signed on to the military for life.
Still, "If you're not homesick around Christmas time, you're not normal," said Staff Sergeant Ron Young, 28, of the Army's 82nd Airborne -- the first U.S. troops to hit Saudi soil after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"Everybody knew from square one that when they signed on the dotted line they might be here. This is what we do," he said, explaining that the hardest part of being in the desert since August was not the holidays but the anxiety and uncertainty of what will come next.
"Now we've got a date -- Jan. 15. We've been over here for five months now. If they come and put it off another month, it's going to kill morale," he warned.
Others may be celebrating the birth of Jesus, but for his part, Young said, "I'm going to skip Christmas this year. My wife wrote that she's going to keep the Christmas tree up and the presents under it until I get back. I don't know whether it will be January or July. But I'm waiting."
The unhappiest troops by far are among the reservists and National Guard. Mobilized for three-month stints, they have been told their time here will be doubled by Pentagon decree. Many say they had never dreamed their service could take them so far from home, or for such a long time.
"The living conditions stink. I'm tired of eating the food we're eating. I'd rather be home for Christmas," said Richard Barnes, 23, who in civilian life drives a tractor-trailer in Virginia. Barnes was mobilized two weeks ago with the Virginia National Guard. "When I signed up I didn't really understand," said Barnes mournfully. "I thought if war broke out the regular army would go to where the war was, and I'd end up guarding our state and capital."
Now he's just marking time, bitter that he won't be with his wife and parents at the holiday. Most soldiers are worried about their spouses and families back home. Some have not received a single letter or package. Even for those who get mail, their isolated life in the sand magnifies their concerns. Add to that constant training and preparation for war, and even the toughest soldier's vulnerable feelings come out.
"I see a lot of people who are stressing out, either from work or the environment. People don't know if they have a family to go back to. People would rather be anywhere else than here in the desert right now," said Navy psychiatric technician Tony Costello of San Diego, who is assigned to a first-aid unit that will treat wounded troops at a medical station between the battlefield and a hospital.