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Marines Find New Reality in Christmas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christmas Eve stalked silently across the desert, full of memories and sweet longings for home, but no big deal, the Marines said. Just another day. Who’s got time to remember? Who’s even got a calendar? They said this to one another, and to a man, each knew the other was lying.

“You know what I’d be doing if I was home?” Cpl. Inez Gutierrez said, and his buddies listened up. “I’d take that walk along the San Antonio River, and I’d watch the lights. You may not think that sounds special, but I’ll tell you, they’re so pretty this time of year, you wouldn’t believe it.”

“Me, I’d just like to be out by the lake, petting my dog and watching a football game,” Cpl. Randal Sanchez of Polk City, Fla., said. “Last year, at Camp Pendleton, my wife, Robin, and me had all the guys over who didn’t have families for dinner.”

“The desert kind of brought me down at first,” said Gutierrez, who got married a month before shipping out to Saudi Arabia, “but it’s OK now. You just block it out. Forget it’s Christmas. I write home to Janie every night, trying to put my feelings on paper. I tell her I hope she’s going to have a joyous season.”

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“That’s one thing about being a Marine, isn’t it?” said Lance Cpl. Jon Street of Palmdale, Calif. “Misery loves company, and we’ve got lots of it. Lucky thing we’re close-knit.”

Their unit--a support battalion that hauls everything from ammunition to water to the forward Marine positions--has been burrowed in sand as fine as talcum powder since September, living in tents and under a world of camouflage netting.

Christmas will be their first day off since Thanksgiving. They will celebrate with a hot turkey dinner and a volleyball tournament in a crevice between the dunes known as the Bob Hope Bowl. The award for the squad that wins at volleyball will be a month’s worth of “bragging rights.”

By 5 o’clock Christmas Eve, the sun had dipped below the Western expanse of sand, and the evening had grown cold. The Marines were right. It didn’t feel like Christmas and yet, with war so close, with the end of a year that had included dozens of conflicts worldwide, there was a sense in the desert night that there were things to be thought about, things to be thankful for.

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“You find yourself thinking more about what Christmas really means out here, about the spiritual side,” said Lt. Cmdr. Terry Aragoni of Syracuse, N.Y., a Navy surgeon. “There’s about to be a war, and that tends to make you more religious. I think everyone out here has given a little more thought to the hereafter than we would at home.”

Aragoni leaned against the row of sandbags that fortified the tented, two-table operating theater. Taped to the wall inside were coupons from Hank’s Pizza of Inglewood, Calif., offering free delivery and an extra-large cheese pizza for $6.95. On a pole outside were wooden signs pointing in the directions from which Aragoni’s medical detachment had come: Los Angeles, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Idaho, New York.

On the highway, past the field hospital and the defensive perimeter where sentries stood lonely guard, a truck convoy rumbled toward the front, burdened with the machines of war, its headlights cutting a path through the darkness. The noise did not disturb the handful of men who sat in the tent that doubles as a TV room and a chapel. Their M-16s were stacked in a rack by the little homemade pulpit.

In order not to offend the conservative Saudis in this land where all religion but Islam is banned, holiday entertainment and Christmas services were not to be publicized, though each unit did pretty much what it wanted inside its position.

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“Hell, out here, you could run from tent to tent shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ and nobody’d hear you,” said one Marine.

So just after dusk, Gig and Smiling Jack and Camel Killer and Padro and a bunch of other Navy corpsmen plodded through the sand to the Camel’s Ass Enlisted Man’s Club. “Every Night Is Ladies Night,” said a notice by the entry flap. There were two picnic tables inside. Spike had already staked out one of them for a game of Monopoly.

The hand-lettered sign on the wall advertised ice tea, Pepsi, and Saudi Slammers--water mixed with various artificial fruit flavors offered in combat rations packages. The tent had a small Christmas tree and was full of relaxed banter.

“I call these guys my desert family,” said corpsman Shane Cadlolo, who wore a tall paper party hat. “Gig, Don, Dave, Doc--if I can’t be with my real family back home, these are the guys I’d want to spend Christmas with.”

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The evening’s entertainment was provided by the Fried Brains--two of the corpsmen’s colleagues, Peter Holten of Beloit, Wis., and Paul Lacombe of Yakima, Wash. They stood by the dart board, singing about white Christmases and sleigh bells ringing and holly and mistletoe. They tried some jokes and got hooted down. “OK,” one of them said, “that’s all the songs we know, so let’s end with a carol.”

At first, everyone just mouthed the words. Then the bantering stopped, and their voices grew stronger, just a bit, and into the night floated an off-key chorus: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. . . . “

Outside, the blanket of stars seemed close enough to touch. “The brightest one there,” said Aragoni, the surgeon, “that’s Mars. Did you know Mars is the god of war? Ironic.”

But the night felt peaceful and had fallen quiet. From somewhere in the shadows a voice said, “Merry Christmas, Sarge.” And the reply came back, “Merry Christmas.”

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