I first wrote this a few Christmases ago. It still seems to resonate. Every Christmas, I look back to my Christmas in Iraq, some six years ago. I served as a Civil Affairs officer supervising a staff of 3. In the war zone, everyday is a work day. On Christmas Eve, we worked a full day. After duty hours, my unit attended a barbacue put on by our sister Psychological Operations Company. Our unit theme was Pirates, so we all wore our Pirate accoutrements. For most of us, that meant simply wearing an eye patch. But, our unit First Sergeant, supported by a resourceful spouse back home, came in full Pirate regalia, from mock boots to a beard and plastic sword. Santa appeared, looking quite jolly. The beverage of choice was some tasty fake beer from Germany. We enjoyed each other’s company. We were a family away from our real families. We, some 40 of us, shared a bond forged in training and honed going outside the wire, knowing who we could rely on and who we could not. We had made it this far, with no casualties. It was a small celebration of life and duty in a far away country.
Some of our Iraqi interpreters joined us, not needing to understand the occasion. Even though they were mostly Moslem, they all seemed to understand the spirit of the celebration.
Christmas day 2005 was quiet fortunately. My staff section was able to take most of the day off. I checked email and then went to Mass. Mass in a war zone is sublime. Life is reduced to its essentials. Church was warm and comforting. The Christian spirit filled the generic old Iraqi government building. Light streamed into our little chapel, our rifles at our feet. The Army priest was one of us, sharing our risks and hopes.
Later, I joined some friends to watch a movie (Christmas Vacation) set up on a laptop and screen. We split among the four of us a box of chocolate liqueurs, the first alcoholic “drink” I had had in many months.
But, the best part was simply being off for much of the day. No responsibility, no fires to put out, no urgent issues, no staff sections to cross swords with. It was a lovely day, amidst stress, worry and fear.
I love Christmas and all it stands for. But, that Christmas in a war zone, Iraq, will always stand out.