Politics & Policy

Christmas ‘Over There’

An Iraq veteran remembers a desert Yuletide.

When I saw the commercial, I laughed out loud.

By now, you’ve probably seen it. A small group of Marines is out in the desert, obviously suffering in the sweltering heat. But then . . . a single snowflake falls. Then another. Then another. Smiling in wonder, the Marines hold their hands out in joy and relief. The heat has broken.

The commercial then flashes to a scene back home, where a child has just left a department-store Santa. “What did you ask for?” he’s asked.

“Something for my Dad.”

Heartwarming, right? Well, yes. Because of the intent. But I laughed out loud because of the reality.

“Why are you laughing?” My kids were puzzled by my reaction.

“Because I’ve seen a Christmas snow in the desert, and it’s not like that.” Well, I’d seen snow in the desert right after Christmas, to be exact. It was early January 2008, we were in the midst of Operation Raider Harvest in northwest Diyala province, and it snowed. In the desert.

“What was it like?”

 

“Well, it was cold, and when the snow hit the dust–” (we didn’t really have much sand where we were; instead, the desert floor was covered by a fine dust) “–it melted and turned the ground into something like that chocolate pudding we put in your school lunches. And when I stepped in it, the mud sucked down my boots — it would have sucked them right off if I didn’t tie them so tightly. And don’t even get me started on our vehicles. The tanks threw enough mud behind them to fill up a swimming pool, and some of the Humvees just got stuck. It was wet, it was muddy, and it was miserable.”

When I landed in Iraq, one of the first things I was told was, “In Iraq, every day is Monday.” And to that I’d add: “And the Grinch always steals Christmas.”

Especially for the men on the line, there is no weekly or even monthly rhythm of life like we have in the States. You just do what you do, day in and day out, until you go home. Then one day you go to the dining facility (if you’re fortunate enough to be working from a base), and there’s a cake and some Christmas decorations. A few days later, there’s another set of decorations. Your friends tell you “Merry Christmas,” then “Happy New Year,” and you just keep working. In my case, that meant preparations for a New Year’s offensive. For others, that meant another patrol. For still others, it meant another broken tank to fix, more rounds to load into the howitzer, or more time hunched over a radio.

I did make one special accommodation for Christmas, and it turned out to be more painful than it was worth. My wife and I arranged for my family back home to open presents during a break in my planning schedule. I planned to run back to my quarters, fire up my computer, and use the tenuous wireless network my friends and I had rigged (using a second-hand satellite dish) to watch the kids open the Wii I’d ordered from Amazon. (If I couldn’t be with them, I could still try to buy their love.)

The connection worked flawlessly. The picture flickered, then I saw my wife’s smiling face above two little heads that bobbed into the screen. “Hi Daddy!” my kids said. I waved, told them I didn’t have much time, and asked if they’d go ahead and open the package I sent.

“A Wii!” they yelled. “Thank you!” The screen jumped. I heard my son say, “Daddy, are you there?” And then it froze. Later I learned that the loss of the picture caused a tidal wave of tears back home. On my end, it caused a tidal wave of words I don’t repeat in polite company. But I didn’t have time to reconnect, so I left my desk and went back to work.

A few days later, I boarded a helicopter and did my small part to support the first offensive of my deployment. I didn’t hear my wife’s or kids’ voices for the next 35 days as I slept in tents, walked the streets of tiny Iraqi towns, and generally counted my blessings since I at least had a cot — 300 other members of 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (Lt. Col. Paul T. Calvert, commanding) were living in the backs of Humvees, Bradleys, and Abramses.

At first, I thought of 2007 as the year I missed Christmas. But my wife helped me see things differently. After hearing my stories — what it was like for the people of Diyala province before our squadron arrived, and then the “awakening” that followed as we slowly and at great cost cleared and held the ground — she said, “You didn’t miss Christmas. For those Iraqis, you were Christmas.”

And in a real and meaningful way, she was right. Christmas is the ultimate story of birth and hope: How a light (the Light) came into the world to make all things new. Of course, we can’t make claims that grand. But in our Christmas, we brought our own kind of hope. We brought the most basic comforts of life — food to eat, fuel to heat their homes, and, most important, a chance at a new beginning. And as I look at Iraq now and see how far it has come since that cold, muddy — and snowy — time two years ago, it seems that perhaps, just perhaps, enough people have seized that chance to allow real rebirth.

And so . . . to our men and women “down range,” Merry Christmas, be safe, and know that your work and your life are precious to our nation . . . and in the sight of God.

 

–David French is a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and a captain in the United States Army Reserve.

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