Dec 27, 2008

Lifestyle - Christmas for troops in Afghanistan: turkey patties, grape juice and calls home

Nancy A Youssef

DELARAM, Afghanistan-There was little hint of Christmas day when the sun rose over this barren military base.

The Marines had their missions lined up: to protect trucks carrying wheat seeds to farmers from a Taliban attack; to link up with the Afghan police to track a Taliban leader believed to be hiding the nearby mountains; and to continue building new facilities to provide creature comforts on this base, part of U.S. military push into new parts of Afghanistan .

But as the day wore on, platoon leaders tacked on a new mission - to make sure every Marine had the chance to call home.

"It's important for the morale of my boys," explained Lt. Phil Gilreath , 23, of Kingwood, Tex ,, a platoon commander.

Marines are used to being away from home on Christmas. About 40 percent of those stationed here have been to Iraq or Afghanistan before or have missed the holiday due to training.

The Marines, the 3rd battalion 8th Marine Regiment based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. , are stationed in Farah province, one of Afghanistan's most difficult regions, an area where Taliban forces not only fight but also sell opium poppy to finance their operations.

In the days leading up to Christmas, some Marines put up small Christmas trees or lined their cold tents with holiday lights. Others spent their evenings watching Christmas movies on their laptops. Some stared at care packages, waiting until Thursday to open them.

In the chow tent, someone lined the electrical cords powering the fluorescent lights with candy canes. During Christmas breakfast, the New York Giants were playing the Carolina Panthers on one of the few televisions on base. One by one, troops walked in and wished the others a Merry Christmas. One quipped: "Honestly, it was nice to not go Christmas shopping this year."

By midmorning, Gilreath lined up his troops in front of a group of Humvees for the first patrol of the day. As his men put on their gear, one Marine asked everyone out loud: "In a Christmas story, what was Ralphie's little brother's name?" It stumps everyone. "Come on, he is the funniest part of the movie," the soldier insisted.

No one could answer. So another simply announced Feliz Navidad to everyone.

Gilreath, who is on his first deployment, then walked his troops through the day's missions. "Then we'll call it a day. Merry Christmas," he told them. As they drove off of base and toward one of the province's few paved roads, Lance Cpl Matt Keefe , 21, of Chesterfield, Mass. , said this was his third straight Christmas away from home. The first time he was in training, the second he was deployed in Africa and this year he is nearly two months into his rotation in Afghanistan .

"I can't wait to have an actual Christmas," Keefe said.

About an hour in, a Humvee broke down, a common problem here as armored vehicles outfitted for Iraq's flatter conditions encounter Afghanistan's rougher terrain. Transmission fluid leaked from the chassis, and eventually the drive shaft fell off. The troops hooked the vehicle to the back of another and headed back to the base. They scrapped the original mission.

Instead, they headed to the center of Delaram to meet residents and quietly gather intelligence. As Gilreath's troops handed out candy from the thousands of care packages they received for Christmas, intelligence officers spotted a man they suspected knew about Taliban activity. But he refused to help.

Gilreath also needed to buy credit for his local cell phone, which he uses to talk to his counterparts in the Afghan National police. He used the occasion to talk to the shop owner about what is happening in the city.

The squad got back in time for an early Christmas dinner, consisting of a turkey patty, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pie. They toasted with Welch's sparking grape juice, each announcing in turn how long he had left in the Marines.

Later, Navy Chaplain Steven Unger, 50, of Springdale, Arkansas led about 15 Marines in a church service in the base conference room. They read Psalm 96 and sang Silent Night. For communion, Unger used bread and grape juice from the chow hall.

Around the base, soldiers and Marines alike called home, some hunched over and others pacing in front of large sandbags. They asked if the children got the presents, told their families they missed them and insisted they were safe and well.

Some, like Gilreath, have local cell phones. The rest must wait in line for two satellite phones on base to talk to their families, and most are limited to 15 minutes a week. The connections often fail. Regardless, by 8 p.m. 27 people had signed up to use a phone.

Gilreath used his own money to buy $40 in phone credit. As the sun set in Afghanistan and rose for Christmas morning in the United States , he walked off to call his wife and two-year-old daughter and wished them a Merry Christmas.

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