How Troops Spend Christmas in Iraq

Mitchell Bell spent last Christmas 7,000 miles from home, at an airbase in Iraq's Anbar province. The Marine pilot did manage to stay in touch with his family, though, sending a DVD of himself reading Dr. Seuss's "The Grinch" for his 2 ½-year-old daughter. Thanks to technology, his wife, Teresa, was able to ask the little girl, "Do you want me to read to you tonight, or Daddy?"

The Iraq war is full of contradictions. It's a high-tech conflict fought against low-tech weapons like sniper rifles and improvised bombs. American troops may sleep in tents or old Iraqi buildings without electricity, but many also have regular access to the Internet, which has become a lifeline to home. Even some of those stationed in the roughest areas can help make family decisions via e-mail, watch videos of their children's activities or do their banking and holiday shopping online. But there isn't a gadget that can alleviate the worry for loved ones left behind to face a festive season that includes endless news reports about the relentless rise in violence and death across Iraq. Nor is there anything that can make a yearlong deployment seem shorter. And with about 140,000 troops now in Iraq—and the possibility of more being deployed—this isn't likely to be the last Christmas in a combat zone for many in the military.

Major Bell, who returned to active duty last year, is a third-generation military man. His grandfather served in World War II and Korea, and his father was a Vietnam vet. He understands just how things have changed over the years for families during wartime: "In my grandfather's era you had to have a strong wife. If she needed to make a major family decision, that letter she sent could take six months if it got there at all. Then you had my dad in Vietnam calling my mom and it would go through all those ham operators and all you'd get was: 'I love you, OVER. I love you too honey, OVER.' In Iraq you can pick up a phone or download pictures. Within minutes you're in touch."

Still, photos and letters can't fully convey what day-to-day life is like in an environment where the climate and the culture are so different from that of the United States. In parts of Iraq, the temperature can drop from 120 degrees in summer to below freezing in winter. Servicemen and -women write to troop-support organizations, asking for simple things like flashlights to search for the improvised explosive devices on the pitted roads and cold-weather gear to keep warm in a place that most people think of as a desert.

Bell recalls the Anbar Marine airbase, where he slept in old Iraqi air-tower bathroom, as either awash in mud or dust storms. And not just any kind of dust. "It was a fine silt that was everywhere and in everything. When you walked you looked like Pigpen, the cartoon character," he says. Bell, 41, says he tried to cheer things up for the younger Marines during the holidays last year by converting a military vehicle into a red Santa sleigh and even organizing a flack-jacket-free 5K run. The workers contracted to cook their meals—most of them from India—tried to prepare a traditional feast, and Bell distributed goodies from supporters in the States, but there was no getting around the homesick ache over Christmas dinner. "You look around the table and it's quiet, and you see these young men and women, heads bowed to give thanks, knowing that all of us are wishing we were home," he says.

For Major Gary Bourland, 37, last year's holidays came near the end of a yearlong deployment in Ramadi, the notoriously dangerous capital of Anbar. (The non-partisan research group iCasualty.org. says the province has been the most deadly of all areas for American forces, accounting for more than 1,000 deaths among Coalition forces .) Bourland had two young daughters and a wife waiting for him back home. The presents they sent offered little respite from a Christmas Day that brought constant shelling and sniper attacks at the Marine base. The festive dinner was held in a fortified bunker, and the dress code included 60-odd pounds of combat gear.

"I could tell you that the holiday is special there, with our tree decorated with bullet shells and cigars," says Bourland. "But even though you know that December 25th is Christmas, there's no time to focus on that. You have to stay focused on the bad guy. You almost want to get that day over with so you can mark it off on your calendar and be closer to getting home."

The hardships and the shared holidays breed a profound sense of camaraderie for many of those stationed in harm's way. Even with the well-publicized troubles the military has had in enticing servicemen and -women to reenlist during wartime, there are many who ask to return and fight alongside their buddies, even after being wounded or suffering through extended deployments. Mitchell Bell left active duty in 1998, but returned to the Marines in August 2005 in order to serve in Iraq. After leaving the service, he married and became a commercial pilot for American Airlines. Then came the attacks of September 11. An old Marine buddy of Bell's was the copilot on the United Airlines flight that was flown into the south tower of the World Trade Center. "To have a friend involved put a face on it for me," says Bell. He decided to take on duties as a recruiter and then volunteered to be sent over. "I asked them, do you have any jobs in Iraq for an old major?" They surely did.

It wasn't easy telling his wife he wanted to rejoin the Marines. "She wasn't a military wife and she was upset at first, but she understood," says Bell. "I couldn't have done it without her love and support."

Courtesy Mitchell Bell