For US troops, a holiday lift from home

Gag gifts from "secret Santas" are squirreled among the crowded bunks of a US Army infantry platoon in Baqubah, a volatile Iraqi city northeast of Baghdad. A six-foot-tall artificial tree outside the barracks is decked out with smoke grenades and machine-gun ammunition for ornaments.

But the 38 members of the 1st Infantry Division platoon, nicknamed the "Punishers," won't enjoy even these makeshift festivities this week at their dusty Forward Operating Base in Baqubah: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day promise more forays to track down insurgents among the tense streets and palm groves of this Sunni region.

Also waiting for them here are a truckload of presents ranging from candy canes to DVD players sent by Americans back home who have "adopted" the unit. The gifts are from an informal but active grass-roots network of families, schools, and businesses across the United States that are delivering literally tons of holiday morale-boosters to American troops - even from thousands of miles away.

US troops in Iraq can hope for no letup in dangerous missions this holiday season, with units like the Punishers facing ambushes and firefights that can last hours between uneasy lulls.

"There isn't too much else planned for the holi-days besides some more missions I guess, as lame as that sounds," says platoon leader Lt. T.J. Grider, a young West Point graduate from Chicago. "Really, it's just another day of work for us. Days become meaningless over here, because we work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Most of the time I do not know what day it is to begin with. But it's our job, and we all volunteered, so no complaining."

Back home, their families, friends, and even strangers who've adopted them cling to each phone call or message, worrying whenever a silence lasts too long.

One evening just before Thanksgiving, Lieutenant Grider's father, Terry, and mother, Danette, were sitting in their living room in Elmhurst, Ill., when the doorbell rang. It was after 9 p.m., when no one usually stopped by in their quiet neighborhood. "We looked at each other and both of our hearts sank," recalls Mr. Grider, a teacher and wrestling coach at York High School. "We had not heard from T.J. in 11 days and we were very scared to go to the door."

It turned out to be a little girl who lived on the block and was delivering wrapping paper. (In fact, Lieutenant Grider and his platoon spent Thanksgiving night on a raid searching for terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.) But like many families of service members, the Griders live with a nagging fear that at any moment solemn men in dress uniforms could appear on their front step.

Anxious to let his son and comrades know people back home appreciate them, Mr. Grider has joined community efforts to deliver shipments of holiday cheer to troops separated from family and loved ones during the holiday.

In Elmhurst, the York High School's National Honor Society adopted the Punisher platoon for the holidays, filling an entire room with some 5,000 pounds of food, candy, and gifts and then collecting more than $1,700 in cash for postage. In mid-November, they shipped 114 boxes of presents to the platoon. A neighborhood block club rallied children on their street to send drawings to the soldiers. Schoolchildren sent homemade Christmas cards.

"Kids say some pretty funny things, and it is nice to be told you are someone's hero and that they are proud of you," Grider says of the cards his men got in Iraq.

By word of mouth from a friend, Sue Vetter, an office worker in Northbrook, Ill., also heard about the platoon. Ms. Vetter had grown up during the Vietnam conflict and recalls making Valentine cards for veterans in a Chicago hospital. But she could never erase the images of Americans insulting soldiers coming home from the war. "I was deeply disturbed," she says. "These men and women had sacrificed for our country and were spat upon when they came back."

Vetter's co-worker, Kim Olms, had learned from her cousin in Iraq that many troops received little mail, which dwindled further as their deployment dragged on. "They were forgotten," she says. Vowing that would not happen again, they, too, "adopted" the Punishers, sending them care packages and letters from well wishers. Another colleague, Christine Tenerelli, started working a part-time job to help pay for postage.

"I cry every time I hear from one of them," says Ms. Olms, "I just want to give every one of them a big hug and bring them all home."

The Punishers, a platoon from the 2-2 infantry battalion that the Monitor has followed since last summer, are grateful for the surge in support. Top on their wish list, however, is that their yearlong tour in Iraq won't be extended and that they'll depart early next spring as planned.

Already, the platoon is contending with the personal costs of a year's duty in a war zone: Ten of its soldiers wouldn't be in Iraq were it not for a "stop loss" mandate lengthening their Army service. Since leaving Germany for Iraq last spring, three have had children born, while at least four say they have gotten divorced.

Meanwhile, the platoon has suffered one killed and several wounded, and had many other close scrapes in waves of intense firefights each month in Baqubah and nearby Buhriz. An old Baath Party suburb where graffiti warns "The Death U.S.," Buhriz is so hostile Grider calls it "our own little Fallujah."

In a 12-hour gun battle Nov. 15, when violence erupted in the city following the Fallujah offensive, one of the platoon's four Bradley commanders was shot in the neck; another bullet narrowly missed his head and instead shattered the barrel of his M-4 rifle.

Just before midnight last May, Sgt. Aaron Stokes was on a foot patrol near the Buhriz cemetery when he looked down a dark alley and saw muzzle flashes. Instantly, he felt a sharp blow to his side, as if he'd been whacked by a baseball bat. Some 12 to 15 insurgents opened fire from nearby. "I did this little dancing number and started shooting back with one hand," says the young team leader from California, who was hit but still standing. His buddies grabbed him and patted him down for wounds, only to find Sergeant Stokes had been saved by his ammo magazines, which stopped a bullet millimeters from his chest.

"If I thought about it, I'd be scared," Stokes says quietly. "I can't afford to be scared out here."

Another platoon member, Staff Sgt. Raymond Bittinger, pulled his Bradley Fighting Vehicle in front of Stokes and his men to let them fall back. "The only time I was really scared was when I saw the dismounts hugging up against the wall. I knew I had to get in front of them and shoot all the guys on the rooftops," said the Chicago native. For similar acts of bravery in a 15-hour firefight on April 9 in which his gunner, Spc. Allan Vandayburg was killed, Staff Sgt. Bittinger won the 1st Infantry Division's first Silver Star since Vietnam.

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