Dispatch from Iraq: Sharing Christmas in a war zone with a special family | NevadaAppeal.com

Dispatch from Iraq: Sharing Christmas in a war zone with a special family

Sgt. Gary Underhill
For the Nevada Appeal
Courtesy Sgt. Gary Underhill

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Christmas 2009, 7:30 a.m.

Christmas morning in Kuwait dawned clear, cool and bright. It was an absolutely beautiful morning as I stepped outside the barracks in my flip-flops and sweat pants to survey my holiday morning away from home. As I did so, I promptly tripped on a sand bag and went sprawling.

“Perfect,” I swore under my breath.

I picked myself up and quickly looked around. No witnesses.

My pride intact, I dusted myself off and quickly went back inside to grab my shower gear. As I shuffled to the showers, I noticed that there was hardly a soul around. Usually, the outdoor smoking area at the end of the barracks is packed with soldiers sucking down their first or 10th cigarette of the morning. It was empty. Arifjan was like a ghost town.

It was a pretty lonely feeling as I made my way to the shower trailer. The only person out this morning was a Pakistani man wearing the typical tan jumpsuit of third-country nationals employed to clean up trash and maintain the latrines. He moved head down in slow motion and, looking up, just stared blankly at me as we passed each other and our eyes met. For a moment, it seemed as though we were the only two people in the world. I had never seen eyes more empty and devoid of life. I wondered if this was the pinnacle of his Christmas morning.

Shamefully, I’d been feeling pretty sorry for myself lately. Being away from my girls for so long, and knowing how much they wished that Daddy could be with them for Christmas had taken its toll on me and them.

What the hell was wrong with me, I thought? So, I was away from my girls. I was going home soon. I wasn’t cleaning toilets and picking up trash on Christmas morning for $400 a month, or sitting on a mountain FOB in Afghanistan dodging rockets and small arms fire, trying to open an MRE with trembling fingers.

I suddenly felt very ashamed and undeserving of how well we had it here.

I stood under the hot water and let it cascade over me. For one reason or another, mostly due to my own poor, selfish choices, the past few Christmases for my family had not been one for the scrapbooks.

I had called home a few days before Christmas Eve, and told Robbie how all I wanted was for her to make Christmas special and fun for the girls. We planned then for me to video call when it was Christmas morning in Nevada and I could share in the opening of presents. I was determined to make the best of this holiday, no matter where I was. It was time to quit feeling sorry for myself and start living for today.

I walked back to the barracks feeling better about the day ahead. The chow hall had a feast prepared for lunch, and several of my closest buddies and I were going to go together. We were going to be for each other the family that couldn’t be with us today.

The sun had risen higher in the morning sky, and I don’t remember it ever being this crisp and clear in the Kuwaiti desert. The air smelled clean for once and you could actually make out the high-rise office buildings and tightly clustered residential area of downtown Kuwait City and the coastline in the distance. Today was going to be different. I just didn’t know it yet.

The clock in my stomach told me that it was time to eat, and we all made our way to the chow hall. As we walked inside, I didn’t recognize it. The cheap cardboard Santas, tattered and ancient red and white crepe paper streamers had been replaced by streams of colored lights, green and red linen table cloths, placemats and an atmosphere of Christmas cheer so thick, you almost had to brush it out of your face.

Slabs of prime rib, sliced ham, real roast turkey, crisp steamed green beans, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, real savory bread dressing and mashed potatoes were being served to us not by the usual emotionless Indian or Pakistani food service workers, but by lieutenant colonels and command sergeant majors!

By the end of the line, my plate seemed as heavy as a manhole cover. At the salad table, a small bar had been set up where eggnog and sparkling cider were being served. The entire front area of the chow hall had been decorated with a gigantic gingerbread house display, colored ice sculptures, and a large nativity scene made out of butter.

“Mmm – I can’t believe it’s not Jesus,” I remarked in my best margarine commercial imitation. (I hoped God shared my sense of humor.)

The chow hall was packed with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines all enjoying what was hands down the best and most enjoyable meal we have yet had in theater.

For an hour at least, the world outside didn’t exist. There was no war, no Iraq, cramped gun truck or dark, lonely highway. No strange cot or dusty tent on some distant FOB. No muddy boots or unshaved faces. Just Christmas morning spent with my brothers, and the promise of a new year and a better life awaiting us when we returned home.

There would be more missions, I knew that, and with them the risk that comes with being the last of an occupying army trying to withdraw from a country wracked by seven years of war. No one wants to be that last casualty in the closing days. No one wants to be that big lottery winner.

But for today at least, none of that mattered.

It was Christmas, we were family and we were together.

• Sgt. Gary Underhill will be on leave in Reno today through Jan. 21. He will write again once he returns to the Persian Gulf and resumes missions.