The Christmas holidays are often the most difficult time of year for U.S. service members deployed overseas and far from their families. In Iraq, troops celebrated together, but thoughts of their loved ones were never far from their minds. VOA's Margaret Besheer spent Christmas with some American troops in Baghdad, and files this report.
At a dining hall in Baghdad, where some 2,500 people were going to have their Christmas lunch, the spirit was high among staff and troops, many donning red Santa Claus caps with their uniforms.
Floyd Lee, senior food service manager at this facility, was festive in a red blazer and Christmas necktie. He said his staff prepared a feast of traditional holiday favorites, such as roast turkey, ham and stuffing that he hopes will remind the troops of their own mothers' cooking. "They like the home-cooked food, the collard greens, the macaroni-and-cheese like mom makes, the sweet potato pies, the eggnog; the things you would enjoy at home," he said.
To add to the spirit of home, there is a Christmas tree festooned in ornaments and lights, a fireplace hung with stockings and other holiday decorations throughout the dining hall.
Today, instead of his usual military duties, Captain Nathan Wilder is serving the troops potatoes, corn and stuffing in the buffet line. It is a military custom that, on holidays, the officers serve the troops.
Captain Wilder, who is from Templeton, Massachusetts, is using Internet technology in order to be closer to his wife and toddler son. "I'll be standing by my computer, we've got the webcam set up at the house, overlooking the Christmas tree in the living room, the plan is when my son gets up, I'll be there watching," he said.
First Sergeant Joe Winchester has been in the military for nearly 16 years, but this is his first Christmas away from his wife and two children. He says he is going to e-mail his wife in North Carolina, and ask her to take over one of his favorite holiday duties. "I am going to remind her that, since I am not there this year, what I want her to do is read The Christmas Story. That's the tradition in our family. I always read it. But I'm going to have her do it, since I'm not there," he said.
For some military personnel, like Marine Lance Corporal Jason Smith, this is not their first Christmas in Iraq. Corporal Smith has served back-to-back tours, and is spending his second consecutive Christmas here.
He says the large number of care packages the troops receive from their families, and even from strangers, makes them feel appreciated this time of year. "We get a lot of candy, and we put on a lot of weight this time of year. We get lots of cards from grade school students, and they draw little pictures and stuff like that it. It makes me feel good," he said.
Many of the troops say it is their faith in God that helps sustain them in Iraq, especially during the holidays. Ordained Minister Lieutenant Colonel Cheryl Brady. "We believe God is in control of our lives. Even being here in this war zone, our faith and trust is in God to keep us, to sustain us, to protect us," she said.
And it is the spirit of community and common purpose that binds many of these men and women together. During the holidays, many of them say, being part of the extended military family helps ease the sadness of missing their real families.