Dispatch from Iraq: Nothing revives the Christmas spirit like fireworks

Dec. 19, 3:25 a.m.

Talil, Iraq

War, or what passes for war in Iraq these days, isn't pretty. And men are often driven to do things that they might not normally do in a civilized society.

Unlike the heartfelt cards, letters and gift boxes from friends and family at home, the constant visual reminders of the season don't resemble a festive Yuletide spirit. The 20-foot tall Camp Arifjan aluminum and plastic Christmas tree that stands outside the Zone 6 event stage makes Charlie Brown's pathetic little tree look like the tree at Rockefeller Plaza!

Every time I walk into the chow hall and see faded cardboard Santas stapled to the walls, or the cheap green, red and white crepe paper decorations hanging from the ceiling, I want to strangle the food services NCOIC with a string of popcorn, or beat him to death with a Styrofoam reindeer.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like we don't appreciate the effort. It's just that there's something fundamentally wrong with watching Pakistani and Indian food service workers hang up Christmas decorations with about as much enthusiasm as standing in line at the DMV.

The only respite from the constant reminder of a holiday that none of us will really celebrate is work. Going on missions and risking small arms fire and IEDs is far more desirable than being forced to endure a cheap imitation of our favorite time of year. Besides, what better way to spend Christmas than on the road with the closest thing we have to family?

That's how it was for last week's mission to Taji, Iraq. It was probably the most fun we've had since arriving here.

Sgt. 1st Class "Bobby" Hahn, Staff Sgt. Mac Nelson, Sgt. Scott Lynch, Sgt. Cassie Roach, Sgt. Lawrence Johnson, Spc. Tyler Miller-Cobb, Spc. Jake Sere, Spc. Jason Frogge, Spc. Sean Canfield, and Spc. "Doc" Cho our medic - this was our family for our Iraqi Christmas holiday.

This morning we would depart earlier than usual for the Iraqi border to meet our convoy. It's the rainy season in Iraq and Kuwait right now, and the night before had seen a torrential downpour. The desert can only absorb so much water before it spits it back out of the ground creating an obstacle course of small, muddy lakes and ponds. Combine this with boredom and four-wheel drive armored vehicles driven by grown men who are reduced to fifth graders by the presence of mud puddles, and you've got the makings of some first-class mud-boggin'.

We left the front gate in our three 15,000-pound armored Humvees, led by Sgt. Lynch and his crew in the 50,000-pound MRAP. Just past the front gate there was a break in the Jersey barriers wide enough for our trucks to pass through. Beyond the break was the old exit road that had been closed due to deep rain-filled potholes and ruts.

The temptation was too great. Miller-Cobb, driving the MRAP, suddenly pulled right and drove toward what looked like Kuwait's version of Lake Michigan.

It was time to play.

We each peeled off and barreled down the road toward muddy oblivion. As the MRAP dove into the water nose-first a geyser of mud exploded 30 feet into the air. We quickly followed suit, with Roach's truck behind us, and when we came out on the other side, laughing and howling like kids, our once desert-tan war wagons were covered in thick brownish-red mud.

There was only one problem. The hour-long drive to the border had a funny way of blow-drying the wet mud until it resembled the hard shell coating on an M&M.

Staff Sgt. Nelson, our gun truck escort commander, had elected not to play and pulled up last in his vehicle nearly spotless and looking slightly out of place. But at least he didn't have to clean dried mud.

There is a stretch of Iraqi highway in south central Iraq that we refer to as "The Big Nothing." Even on a moonlit night, all you can see is mile after mile of absolute nothingness. The silence, the boredom, the inevitable claustrophobia will eventually take their toll on any soldier.

The hours of silence was broken by a HET driver announcing that we would have to halt the convoy due to engine problems.

With the approaching dawn just starting to turn the night sky a dull blue-black, our convoy began its turn onto alternate supply route and the road back to Kuwait.

As if on cue, Lynch announced "All Rebel elements! Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas."

In near unison, Sere, my gunner Canfield, and Roach's gunner, Christopher Lambert, shot up red and green star-cluster flares.

The sizzling and burning parachute flares, floating slowly to the ground from hundreds of feet above us, lit up miles of desert in the colors of Christmas, and at that moment, did more to rescue our Christmas spirit than any cardboard Santa or aluminum tree ever could.

With one exception.

A little slow on the uptake, and insisting on being different, Staff Sgt. Nelson announced, "Happy Hanukkah," as his gunner, Sgt. Lawrence "Velvet Larry" Johnson fired off his green star cluster flare.

Except Johnson's aim was off. Instead he was at a wrong angle, firing it 90 degrees from the turret and directly into the desert floor where it impacted into the sand and burned itself out.

"You ... bring ... the ... fail!" Sere called into his headset, and we all laughed ourselves into a fit as we drove for home.


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