Most of us still are remembering the warmth and cheer of recent Christmas celebrations—but for U.S. military personnel deployed overseas, the atmosphere was markedly different. For many of them, Christmas was “just another day in Iraq.” And yet, in the midst of military procedures and missions, mortar fire and missed sleep, Foursquare active-duty military chaplains endeavored to bring the message and a bit of the atmosphere of Christmas to the troops they serve. Those efforts are touchingly portrayed in the following excerpt from a letter written by Army chaplain Steve Pratel, who recently returned from a deployment to Iraq.
It’s midnight Iraqi Standard Time on Christmas day, and the last three days have been a blur.
We had over 1,600 stockings for our Christmas stocking distribution plan, and were able to give our surplus to another chaplain who didn’t have anything to distribute. It’s a great way to end two months of almost daily work as we stacked, sorted and organized this effort. And in many ways, it was just another day in Iraq—filled with challenges and God’s blessing.
At 7 a.m. I went to our TOC (Tactical Operation Center, the brain of our battalion operations) we started loading stockings and Christmas packages to be delivered to our companies on the FOB. This morning’s mission is to deliver about 800 stockings and 100 boxes to seven company headquarters. I had to have this massive task completed by noon so I could return the truck I finagled out of our supply clerk, and get to my 1300 redeployment meeting. We finished at about 1130.
At 1300 I went to one of the many meetings we are holding to plan and coordinate our movement back to the states. Here at this meeting we sync all the assets, operations and elements of moving a 1,000-soldier mechanized unit with all its gear, equipment and materials back across the Atlantic. It is a monumental task, and along with that are the emotional and physical preparations. Medical screenings, classes, screening for high risk issues the solder are dealing with: injuries, emotional troubles, marriage problems and all the complications of putting your “real life” on hold. These are the topics of these meetings, all in the middle of a normal operation tempo that includes 30 missions and patrols a day plus whatever the enemy decides to add to the mix.
So after this working group, I flow into my next meeting which is to plan a training seminar I am teaching with our Command Sergeant Major starting on the 27th, to prepare our young and inexperienced leaders in how to help the soldiers in their care when we get back to Fort Carson. It’s 1430 and I make a quick pass through our command section and check on how things are going out in sector. No reports of soldiers wounded or in contact with the enemy, so I head over to my office to check with my assistant and make my final preparations for our midnight candlelight service, and make sure we are set.
At 1130, two of my soldiers came down to provide guard for the service. We are under a suicide vest bomber threat right now, so any meeting with more than 10 people requires armed guards at the door. People begin arriving and things are starting to feel like Christmas. Music in the background, candles, smiles, soft talking and quiet prayers. We begin promptly at midnight, and the chapel is about half full (30 people). It has been raining (OK, pouring) on and off all night so I figure the rain and time has kept people away, but within five minutes we are at standing room only, and as I light the final Advent candle, we sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” I share my message on living and embracing the lordship of God in the same spirit as Mary when she said in Luke 1, “May it be unto me as you say.” This is pertinent to us, for while we are volunteers and take this discomfort by our choosing, Mary had it forced upon her. God did great things through Mary’s obedience, and He will do the same for us. We follow with communion and it is a powerful time of God’s presence, and there is a real sense of peace, and strength. It is healing for us, as our hearts are tired after 13 months.
We conclude at 0045 (12:45 a.m.) and once everyone leaves, I begin prepping for tomorrow when I will visit all my soldiers out in sector. So I set up my chaplains kit, make sure all the stockings are set, and head up to the TOC to close out the day. It has been a good day, overall. Though it was just another day in Iraq, no one was wounded today, no one was killed, and there were no Red Cross messages or bad news from home to deliver to a soldier.
December 25 – Christmas Day
Wow, is this really the second Christmas in a row I am here? Doesn’t seem real. I’m up at 0730 (got to sleep in!) I head up to the TOC to coordinate the pickup of the Christmas stockings. We get loaded up, then head over to pick up the new ADCO (a general) to take him with us. We have four locations to visit, and this general is new to our area. He is a church attender, and was at the candlelight service last night.
We arrive at our first stop, COP Crazy, my Charlie company COP. One platoon is out on a mission, and the other is on a mixture of guard, movie watching and sleeping. I go wake up all the sleeping beauties, and announce that we will have a Christmas service with communion in 30 minutes. There are about 20 guys in all and after meeting with the general and talking a bit, we have a service, and give them their Christmas stockings.
Following the service we head out to our next location, an outpost of soldiers selected from across the battalion who operate some top secret stuff I can’t tell you about. They are happy to see us, and we repeat the scene above, and then walk about 400 meters to our 3rd stop, our largest and primary COP in the city, COP Knight, owned and run by Delta Company with a Platoon of Infantry from Bravo Company. This COP has 2 to 3 platoons at any given time with a constant group of infantrymen, tankers, scouts, and support soldiers. We repeat our schedule, but while we are talking there is the sound of several large explosions. These are so common no one thinks twice. If they affected our forces, or if they occurred in our area of operation we will know soon enough. So it is on to the stocking distribution and service. Just as we finish with communion, we get the report that the FOB took over 13 rounds of indirect fire (mortars or rockets). Several are wounded and one killed. None of those hurt are in our unit, so with some frustration, we continue mission.
Our final stop is COP Rock, an outpost that we put up in the center of Mosul’s most violent neighborhood, and a stone’s throw from where five of my soldiers were killed last January. We wrap up at COP Rock, having spent about 6 hours out and about in the city of Mosul. It’s Christmas, but our mission and days continue. Patrols come and go, guard shifts switch, missions, raids, and operations don’t stop, even though we have all paused, if even for a minute, to remember and focus on the One who himself came to earth on a 33-year-long deployment, suffering and sacrificing for the freedom and peace of others. We take the general to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital) and discover that the soldier killed today arrived yesterday as part of the replacements for the hospital. It is a sobering moment for all of us, but we universally agree if someone had to die, better one who just said goodbye to his wife and three children and not one who had been gone for 15 months.
We head back over to our TOC. It’s 1530, and before I say goodbye to the soldiers who have escorted/protected me all day, I give each a Christmas stocking, and we share a moment of prayer. I head into the headquarters building and the Christmas cheer is continuing, mixed with battle tracking, reacting to enemy contact, tracking enemy combatants from the air, and orchestrating several raids and police actions. In the middle of it all, people are passing out cards, Christmas gifts and greetings.
Things die down as the sun goes down and the natives begin to prep for Friday. (Friday is the Muslim Sunday.) We were supposed to have an all-day football tournament, but the threat of the indirect fire caused us to call it off. Not a great day, but not a bad one by Iraq standards. Many have been far worse.
At about 1800 I sit down with the Command Sergeant Major and we work out some of the final details on our training program for later this week, as well as several other issues and challenges. Our Christmas dinner is delivered, and though we could go up to the chow hall, it is days like today that we are thankful we can get food brought directly to our TOC. So it is macaroni and cheese, prime rib, green beans, yams and turkey, with a glass of Borden eggnog and piece of apple pie for Christmas dinner. Unfortunately, something didn’t mix well, and in about a half hour most of us are sick … yes, just another day in Iraq!
2130 comes and we head over to the airfield to await the ramp ceremony. A ramp ceremony is a quiet and somber/honorable way to load a fallen brother on the aircraft that will bring his body home to America. This is the 18th ceremony and 23rd soldier I have watched sent home this last year. Not the way any of us wanted to end our Christmas day, but this is what we volunteer to do. Our lives are not our own, and I don’t mean that in that we are GIs (government issued). We belong to God, and when our mission is complete we are out. Nothing can make it happen earlier than He intends, and nothing will delay it. He alone knows the number of our days, we are charged to simply make the best of them, or to “redeem” them, as Paul says.
When all is said and done, I get back to the TOC at about midnight. The Internet and phones are on blackout because of the death and waiting for notification of the family, so I decide to write this account of my day rather than go to sleep. In many ways it was just another day, and tomorrow will be just like it.