In an auditorium where conscripts for Saddam Hussein’s army were once given indoctrination lectures, hundreds of U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers gathered on Christmas Eve to hear a chaplain urge them to “take the joy of Christmas” with them in their daily duties here.
“Look for the Christmas spirit in places you would never expect,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Russ Keyes, a Southern Baptist minister from Mississippi. “Take the joy with you when you stand post or when you go outside the wire. Remember, even the shepherds had to return to their fields.”
Then, with the lights dimmed, the assembled military personnel sang “Silent Night” as they slowly waved greenish “chem-lights,” which give off a glow that is strong enough to illuminate close-up objects but not bright enough to attract snipers.
Keyes said he hoped the services in the renamed Chapel of Hope at this onetime Iraqi army base would help the Marines and others endure the daily grind of waging a campaign against a relentless insurgency. “I hope I left them with a little bit of the feeling they would have if they were home,” he said.
Seabee Donald Singleton, a heavy-equipment operator from Lewisburg, Tenn., said he felt the late-night service provided the appropriate feeling. “I feel His presence here,” he said.
The service was a break in the seven-day-a-week work schedule that is the norm at Camp Fallouja, one of the major U.S. bases in volatile Al Anbar province. For most of the military personnel, Christmas will be a workday. Nonetheless, the corps made efforts at the big base to evoke the holiday.
The chow hall was decked out in Christmas colors and Christmas trees. A dozen Marines on Christmas Eve did their daily exercise run in green sweatsuits and red Santa caps. Musically inclined Marines played a medley of Christmas songs during dinner.
The spirit was more austere for Marines assigned to a series of small outposts scattered around the region. For them, there was no chance to come to the big base for Christmas Eve services or the festive chow hall.
At the now-empty Abu Ghraib prison, Army 1st Sgt. Scott Moyer said he planned on Christmas Day to communicate with his wife and 3-month-old daughter in Sierra Vista, Ariz., through a new webcam. He’s one of seven soldiers living at the prison to help mentor the Iraqi army unit stationed there to keep away looters.
“They’ve promised us hot chow for Christmas Day,” Moyer said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to eat it.”
Even at the outposts, Marines adorned their cramped living quarters with small Christmas trees, cards and wreaths, sometimes in close proximity to pinups.
At a checkpoint outside Fallouja, Marines decorated a small artificial tree with M-16 bullets and phony identification cards seized from Iraqis.
Another location had its own version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with references to “three IEDs [roadside bombs] and a sniper in a pear tree.” Some of the Marines said their families were waiting until they returned to celebrate Christmas. Others said Christmas had arrived with little notice.
“If you keep track of the days, it just makes it harder,” said Cpl. Daniel Hornung, 21, of Half Moon Bay, Calif. “It’s bad to be away at Christmas, but we’ve got a job to do. The mission comes first.”
At the Fallouja Development Center, where Sunnis fleeing from Shiite death squads in Baghdad arrive almost daily, Marines decorated their tiny chow hall, made of plywood, with Christmas wreaths and a small tree.
They watched a DVD of Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” during a dinner of barbecued chicken and steak. The night was topped off by apple pie and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Instead of the larger festivities, the Marines at outposts got Col. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, who made a tour, wishing Merry Christmas to all. In addition to greeting Marines, Nicholson stopped his convoy several times to pass out Christmas candies to Iraqi children who flocked to the string of Humvees in the impoverished Shiite neighborhood of Nasser Wa Salam.
At one stop, Nicholson told Marines, “Sorry guys, I didn’t bring any hot women or cold beer in my sled.” He did, however, pass out pricey cigars.
At another spot, he told Marines that, believe it or not, they would probably remember this Christmas fondly someday.
“I don’t know if you’re staying in the Marine Corps for four years or 30 years, but you’ll always remember the Christmas you spent in Iraq,” he said. “You’ll never forget these faces.”
Along with gifts from home, many of the Marines had received cards and small gifts from strangers, particularly schoolchildren. Sgt. Josh Foster, 27, of Kansas City, Mo., spending his third Christmas on deployment, said he received a card from a schoolgirl with two wishes: “Merry Christmas and please don’t die.”
Lance Cpl. Craig Wilson, 21, of Streetsboro, Ohio, said he was unsure how he would remember this Christmas.
“It depends on how tonight’s mission goes,” said Wilson, who is assigned to Karmah, considered the most dangerous of the neighborhoods surrounding Fallouja.
Cpl. Jason Default, 21, of Charleston, S.C., also posted to Karmah, said he was sure of one thing about Christmas 2006 in Iraq. “It’s going to make next Christmas a lot sweeter,” he said.