For many, another Christmas in Iraq

Troops deal with a holiday far away

December 25, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- They came singly and in groups on a clear, cold Christmas Eve, carrying their weapons up the steps into a chapel brimming with light and carefully stowing them beneath the plain planked pews. For a few moments, at least, the candles and carols and cadences of familiar prayer seemed to bring home tantalizingly close.

Some 15,000 men and women of the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy live and work at this sprawling air base lying on a flat, dusty plain west of Baghdad. This is home to the 3rd Marine Air Wing, about 4,500 combat Marines of Regimental Combat Team 7, a trauma medical facility and other organizations grappling with al-Qaida terrorists and the violent Sunni insurgency in Anbar province.

On the wall of the air wing headquarters, a display under the legend "Gone But Not Forgotten" bears the names of 162 Marines and soldiers who have died in the fighting.

The chapel here is a solid concrete building, flanked by blast walls to protect against mortars. But it also boasts stained-glass windows that on Christmas Eve reflected twinkling lights and the upturned faces of hundreds of far from home Americans who came to celebrate in the glow of fellowship against the awful reality of the war outside. "And they were sore afraid," a chaplain read as men in dusty desert uniforms bent over their Bibles. "And the angel said unto them, `Fear not.'"

"Hark! The herald angels sing," they sang in hearty, mostly male voices accompanied by 25-year-old Cpl. James Partlow of Flemington, N.J., on the piano.

"We pray, oh God, that all will hear the angels' call for peace," intoned a chaplain.

"It is hard, being away from my wife and three kids," said Cpl. Courie Roberts, 29, from West Baltimore. While he is deployed here with the base security forces, his wife is back home at Fort Riley, Kan., and his three children are in Baltimore with relatives.

"We don't get a chance to decorate the tree, to open presents with the kids," he said. "They try real hard here to make it nice, but it's just not the same.'"

Like other soldiers and Marines, Roberts planned to get up early on Christmas morning - 3 a.m. - to phone home to Baltimore, where, eight hours behind, the family will be enjoying Christmas Eve.

Despite the awkwardness of celebrating the holiday here, he said, cradling his M16 rifle, "it is good to come in here to hear the good word."

With the relentless pressure of deployments to Iraq and elsewhere, it has become increasingly common for Marines and soldiers and sailors to spend Christmas away from home. Marine Capt. Mike Roberts, a C-130 cargo plane pilot, has been here 18 months out of the past three years.

Francisco McKenzie, a 22-year-old Marine corporal, has been away from his San Bernardino, Calif., home for the past four Christmases.

"This is literally all we know," he said, gesturing around at the chapel's plastic Christmas tree, the cardboard wreaths and red, white and green bunting draped from the ceiling of the mess hall.

Others shrugged off the emotional difficulties. "I know that because I'm here today, my family can celebrate back home in peace - that's what this is all about," said Lance Cpl. Gregory Anderson, a 19-year-old from Worcester, Mass. This is his second Christmas away from home.

Cpl. Jeffrey Raymond, a 25-year-old from South Orange, N.J., is also on his second deployment to Iraq, and showed up for the Christmas Eve service at the chapel with his helmet and weapon.

Would he head home to bed afterward? "Rack ops? Oh I wish!" he said with a grin. Instead he was headed back to work at the operations center.

But as they filed from the chapel at the end of the service, each shielding a tiny candle from the bitter wind, they seemed buoyed by the spirit.

"Merry Christmas," they cried to each other - rank forgotten for the moment as they headed out under an immensely starry sky, angling off toward barracks or duty stations. "Merry Christmas!'"

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