How did I spend Christmas?
Nestled in my fart sack, the 5 a.m. alarm came too early. I reached over and hit snooze. Ten minutes later, snooze again. Finally, at around 5:30, my scraggly butt jumped out of my sleeping bag and prepared for my 0645 mission: to follow around General Casey and General Ham as they wished troops a Merry Christmas. Top ranking generals do this all the time and they always want a photographer… Builds morale for privates to have their picture taken next to a man who has more stars than Pluto. Anyway, I normally assign this type of a mission to one of my soldiers, but it was Christmas and I wanted them to enjoy the day. Back to waking up. If you would have asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would have said a nice, hot shower and for all my troops to be safe. Well, I got one of those. You know how it is, you turn the “hot” shower knob and you just stand there waiting for it to actually get hot. Well, I’m standing there completely nude waiting and waiting and waiting. I held my hand against the cool water, thinking that it might be hot, so I step in. Nope, my hand just got used to the water; it was cold. I didn’t take a shower. I just shaved and put on a lot of Speed Stick. “Good thing it’s not hot, because I’d hate to be stinky around the highest ranking general in Iraq. The cold air will keep in the stink,” I thought to myself still ticked off at the cold shower.
As we were leaving the compound, general H stopped at the gate to say hello to soldiers. These are the guys who have one of the hardest jobs in Iraq, always a target but never leaving their post. They do this without accolades every day. But on December 25, 2004, a guy with a star on his collar and a lot of love in his heart said thank you. They were surprised, but really appreciated the thoughts.
As we strolled through Mosul, there were a few traffic accidents. Totally forgetting I was in Iraq, I wondered if the morning radio shows would suggest alternate routes. After that very short day dream, my thoughts went back to looking for car bombs. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of General Casey with my camera strapped on my left and M-16 on the right.
We went inside the camp’s dining facility, where he randomly walked up to soldiers eating. To put this in perspective, picture yourself eating at your local diner and your state governor or the President walks up to your table and says “hey, mind if I join you?” A four star is like a God in the Army. One private talked with food still in his mouth… “Hi,” chew, chew, “sir.” Everybody stood up. “Please sit down. I just wanted to say thanks for what you’re doing.” One kid pulled me aside. “Hey, sergeant, who is that?” I felt like hitting him on the head with my camera. “That’s the commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. Duh.” “Oh, I thought that was Sanchez.” “No, he was the commander of Multinational CORPS, not Forces, Iraq and he was like three generals ago anyway.” Some people, I swear.
Then, we went to the battalion headquarters of a unit that lost several soldiers in the Marez attack. I was expecting a somber group, still saddened by their loss. Rather, they were in the holiday spirit. Christmas music, lights and Santa hats were on show for the general. He shook all their hands and asked for updates on the enemy situation. A buck sergeant pointed laser light to a map and briefed the general. Again to put this in perspective, this would be like a mail clerk of a fortune 500 company giving the CEO advice on financial investments. Only in the Army will the most senior person listen to the little guy. I guess that's what makes our military so special.
And then we loaded up in the Black Hawk to go see the soldiers at the far away, remote FOBs. I’ve flown a million times, so I don’t gawk down mesmerized at the earth from above. I normally doze off. I assumed my normal position: head tilted low, hands inside my vest and legs crossed with my Kevlar tilted and eyes closed. I think I was out for 30 minutes when I came to and what I saw scared the heck out of me. Flying over the mountains of northern Iraq, a thick fog settled around our bird. It was so bad that the pilots couldn’t see what was in front to the left or right. The gunners were sticking their heads out the window looking for something, but all they saw was a vapor condensed to fine particles of water suspended in the lower atmosphere, aka fog. Luckily, these pilots were well trained and got us out of the hairy situation. For a little bit, I thought we were about to give an Iraqi mountain top a facelift.
We landed and said hi to more troops. I took their pictures, and then we were off to meet an Iraqi dignitary who lived like a king. His home sat on 500 acres of beautiful farmland. He had a lush green garden and a marble sidewalk leading to the front door. He also had armed guards at every entrance. This guy was kind of like the Donald Trump of northern Iraq, except he wore a man dress. He made us pizza, French fries and a bunch of other food I can’t pronounce. I was starving, so I ate everything put before me except the chicken lying in a vat of orange sauce. The general and the Iraqi man talked politics while I stuffed my face. I must admit, I’m not a very neat eater. Grains of rice dribbled off the plate and I smeared tomato paste on my cheek. The general’s aide gave me a funny look. “Boy, where did you learn how to eat?” Hey, I grew up in Oklahoma, pal, let me eat. It was actually a nice Christmas dinner despite most of it ending up in my lap.
I don’t remember much of the flight back, because I was sleeping. When I landed at the camp, everybody said Merry Christmas and seemed to be in good spirits. So, despite the cold shower, it turned out to not be a bad Christmas after all.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY. DON’T FORGET WHY WE CELEBRATE IT!