Making the best of Christmas in Baghdad

There's no snow, no mistletoe, and loved ones are far away, but US soldiers strive to keep the day as festive as possible.

Second Lt. Denis Wagner will spend Christmas in the bull's eye of a hostile city, thousands of miles from loved ones, with the strong likelihood that his unit will receive random and deadly mortar fire.

But, he has to admit, holidays on Bandit Island won't be that bad.

The 1,400 troops of Unit 1-37 Armor, nicknamed the Bandits, consider themselves a little extra blessed this holiday season. They are stationed on a picturesque island, which was a former holiday spot for Baghdad's elite, surrounded by glittering lakes, waving date palms, and fancy facilities like a recreational room and a dining hall.

"We'll still have to deal with the enemy, and the enemy doesn't take holidays," says Wagner, polishing off a hot meal in the cafeteria, where several televisions are tuned to CNN. He adds, "But we will have a big Christmas feast."

Holidays without the creature comforts of home will undoubtedly be difficult for all 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq. However, given the variety of living arrangements, it's considerably less difficult for some than others.

While some troops could spend Christmas night in a Humvee in the desert, swilling from water bottles and munching frozen soldier meals, the Bandits' head chef, Keith Siney, is planning a feast to rival Thanksgiving, including 2,000 lobsters, 480 pounds of beef, 40 turkeys, and six kinds of pies.

Bandit Island's proximity to the airport and Baghdad center has enabled troops to import equipment for a phone center to call home, a computer lab for Internet shopping, two gift stores for holiday purchases, and Federal Express service to ship back to the US.

It's not as good as home, but "it's definitely different from any other places," says Wagner, who has served seven years' active duty. Wagner is from Iowa, but his four children and wife are living on an army base in Germany.

Across Iraq, military commanders say they will do their best to bring the holiday spirit to the troops. While some soldiers are spending their third or fourth Christmas with fellow soldiers, many others are away from home for the first time.

There are typical holiday military traditions, including military commanders pulling kitchen patrol to give the soldiers the day off, comedy shows, fun runs, concerts, and Christmas caroling.

For the most part, it falls to individual units to organize activities. Soldiers in northern Iraq, those who have seen some of the heaviest fighting of late, may well be running missions on Christmas Day, or called into combat. Internet and phone service are sporadic.

While technological advances zapped into barracks do bring soldiers into closer communication with home than in any past conflict, most say holiday activities require a personal - not electronic - touch.

"Of course we would all rather be at home for Christmas with our loved ones, but instead we will enjoy the holidays here in Iraq, with our 82nd Airborne family, and that's what it is," says Capt. Tammy Galloway, who has two children back home in Texas. "The relationships you develop with your brothers and sisters in arms are a bond like no other, especially during combat. We all face the same fears and challenges and together we get through them."

In the large recreation room on Bandit Island, 54 soldiers put together a "soldiers' show," including singing and dancing on Dec. 9th. The unit's chaplin, Capt. Will Horton, is putting together several services in a yellow tent, where he has 15 plastic chairs and a table of leaflets with soldiers' prayers.

He says Christmas away from home gives soldiers time to focus on what's truly meaningful in their lives.

"It's an opportunity for them to grow deeper in their spiritual walk, because they're independent of other influences in their lives. They become focused on their journey and walk with God."

In the Bandit Island mailroom, Sgt. Victor Ortiz anticipates packages to triple to 30 a day as Dec. 25 nears. Many churches and schools sending packages to loved ones include extra gifts for soldiers who may not have anyone to send them gifts.

The top three items in packages are: candy, music CDs, and drink powder.

One of the rare luxuries afforded to soldiers on Bandit Island is holiday shopping. Bandit Island has a jewelry store and two "convenience" shops.

Near the pool some Iraqi vendors have set up a gift store where soldiers can browse a selection of DVDs, frying pans, electronics, and "Iraqi-style" gifts, including a large velvet blanket with painted tigers. If that's not their taste, soldiers can even hire personal shoppers.

"If the soldiers see something nice for their wife while they're on patrol, they come back and send one of the Iraqi guys out to buy it," says Horton.

Some soldiers are heading home, but who gets to go home is purely "luck of the draw," as departure dates are based on arrival dates. Those whose departure dates fall before the holidays are "ecstatic," says Sgt. Amy Abbott.

Some soldiers will spend the holidays with their family without ever leaving the base. There are four married couples on Bandit Island.

Specialist Curtis Curl and his wife Michelle are one. They met in training, and were shipped out together. They have a 3-year-old daughter living with relatives in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"We usually run into each other. It's nice. We trained together, but this is the first time we've been in operation together," Mr. Curl said. "I don't have to worry about her; she's a clerk. But I know she worries about me."

Christmas is the season of giving, and this year all soldiers - whether patrolling the Syrian border, peacekeeping in Baghdad, or rebuilding schools in Iskandiriyah - say they got the best gift of all: the capture of Saddam Hussein.

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