A Baghdad Christmas

A soldier's mom learns what her son really wants for the holidays: ordinary news from home.

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'Peace on Earth," the holiday card in my hand reads, right above the lion and the lamb. Several cards here at the Hallmark store carry the same message. Some in a flowing script. Others with cheery letters of red or green or gold.

But for many people this year, it's an empty phrase. There is no peace, in more ways than one, especially for those with sons or daughters, wives or husbands, serving in the Middle East.

And in place of that missing peace: memories, and for me, a bittersweet awareness of the changes war can bring.

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My son, Roman, a 20-year-old Army private, has been stationed in and near Baghdad since May. His unit moves around a lot, so we hear from him only now and then. When we do, a line in an e-mail might tell of watching tracer fire across a sandy expanse or of waking up to the boom of mortars. Dan Rather sometimes keeps us up to date on his division. "Two soldiers from the 1st Armored were killed today by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad," he'll say to lead off the evening news.

The other day Roman wrote about the strange dichotomy he and his buddies feel at times in their role as both liberators of the Iraqi people and fighters against the insurgents. He didn't use the word "dichotomy." His words were more vivid than that:

"I don't know how many times we've been on raids, and we'll be searching the house. One person pulling security on the men of the house, and one on the women and children. They'll offer to make us tea, or ask for a picture (if they see a camera), and for a while we chill out in their house and play with the kids. It's especially weird if we meet with resistance on the way in. I always bring candy in my pockets and bullets in my chamber."

Last year at this time Roman had just completed boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., including several weeks of advanced infantry training. He was home for the holidays, and looking forward to a two-year assignment in Germany, scheduled to begin in early January.

Four embroidered Christmas stockings - Roman's and his sister's, mine and my husband's - hung from the mantel on opposite sides of the living room fireplace. Among the gifts I'd tucked into Roman's stocking were two pocket travel guides: one for Germany, one for Europe.

From Washington, talk of war was growing louder every day, but Roman's conversation then was still more likely to focus on possibilities like weekend train trips to the Alps or meeting pretty German girls eager to practice their English.

He liked planning what he was going to do with his paychecks. Foreign travel ranked right up there with trips to Fry's Electronics. And like a lot of guys his age, he was happily into acquiring "stuff," especially the stuff that comes with owner's manuals, or better yet, a remote control.

Those three weeks of leave were a good visit for the most part, but hard, too. Life's in-between times always are. Here he was, a young man on the brink of full-blown independence, yet at the same time finding himself once again sharing the back seat of the family sedan with his home-from-college sister on the way to Christmas dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's.

During those weeks, he was quieter than usual, and restless. Home seemed to be little more than the place he was oh-so-ready to leave. Sometimes at night he'd go out for a long walk, and return with the smell of a cigarette still on him. Nineteen and invincible, he gave little weight to those health warnings from the Surgeon General, and even less to mine.

Not long ago, a couple days after every mall in America began advertising holiday specials, I sat at my computer here and "chatted" with Roman in Baghdad via Instant Messenger, the program that lets people "talk" in real time using their computer keyboards.

"Anything in particular you'd like for Christmas this year? Lots of people ask me what they can send. What should I tell them?" I typed to my Material Boy.

"Let's see. Let me think.... No. Nothing, really. I have pretty much what I need here."

"Come on now. It's Christmas!" I pressed.

"Hmmmm. Well, there is one thing...."

"OK."

"What me and the rest of the guys like most is getting letters. Not a card someone just signs. But a letter. A real one."

He went on to say it could be about anything.

"Anything at all, Mom."

The weather. Work. The kids next door. The latest Charger loss. Saturday's movie. Last night's fish tacos. He even went so far as to say he'd welcome more news from his grandmother about her trips to the podiatrist.

"Letters from home. Really, that's the best gift we can get right now."

Later he typed that it was time to for him to go. Staring at his sign-off on the screen, I swallowed hard.

"Peace," was all he wrote.

Sue Diaz is a San Diego columnist and author.

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