Christmas in Iraq

Three days before my 18th birthday I checked in to my first unit, 1st Marine Division, at Camp Pendleton, California. I had completed boot camp in May, combat training in July, and admin school in early August.

I celebrated my birthday by receiving the Smallpox vaccine and my first dose of the Anthrax vaccine series. Super fun. Around the same time, another Marine in my unit decided to become a Deserter. He was slated to deploy to Iraq and for whatever reason chose to disappear. My unit had to scramble to pick a replacement… and I was the chosen one.

So with no pre-deployment training, with zero “real Marine Corps” experience, and knowing nobody in my unit, I was on my way overseas.

Trying on some of my gear before leaving
Waiting for our flight out of March Air Base
Layover at Rhein Main Air Base near Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Sleeping under the tail of our broken plane… waiting for a replacement flight. Camp Victory, Kuwait.
In the air somewhere over Iraq… it was hot.

I arrived in Iraq on September 18th, 2004 – exactly one month and one day after checking in to my unit. It was to be a six month tour… so this would be my first holiday season away from home… Halloween, the 2004 presidential election (my first time voting!), Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Inauguration Day 2005, Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day…

My home for 6 months. The “Girl House”
Me atop the Command Operations Center shortly after arriving at Camp Blue Diamond, Ar Ramadi, Iraq.

My parents quickly became expert care package senders. Epic is probably a more apt description. They didn’t just throw goodies in a box, slap on a customs form, and drop it in the mail…

Every. Box. Was. Special.

Some were themed. Some were wrapped up like presents. All were an absolute joy to receive.

Early in the deployment we started talking about Christmas. Packages could take weeks or longer to arrive, so their goal was to have everything in the mail well before Thanksgiving (I think). I don’t know who brought it up first… them or me… but the topic of Christmas trees came up. I begged them to not send me a tree… multiple times… but they couldn’t resist.

Decorating our Christmas tree

Our office ended up with two trees – one from mom and dad and the other from another Marine’s family. We decorated both. One was covered with lights, ornaments, garland, and tinsel. The other was adorned with medals… Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Heart, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary and Service Medals, a Bronze Star, and topped with a Silver Star.

For our office, called “G-1”, one essential task was to review, edit, and submit for approval award nominations. When a Marine or sailor was nominated for a medal, and they were deployed as part of 1st Marine Division, that paperwork eventually came through our office. Some were for performing duties above and beyond what was expected. Most were for Valor – heroic acts of bravery during battle. Many of those were to be awarded posthumously.

We figured our G-1 Tree was appropriate.

Our G-1 Tree
Each person in the G-1 had a stocking. Mine was bottom row, second Santa.

Mom and dad didn’t stop with the tree. They sent a massive box (or two?) filled with presents.

Me opening presents.

The pièce de résistance? Well… Christmas isn’t the same without cookies. Mom outdid herself. She didn’t just send me Gingerbread cookies (not that I’d be upset… they’re always amazing). Nope. She made Marine Corps Eagle Globe and Anchor (EGA) Gingerbread cookies and iced them. That’s pretty insane. Check out the complexity of these cookies in the picture. With all of that hard work, she had to make sure they’d arrive intact. Each sheet held 6 cookies and must have been vacuum sealed or something. They were all contained within layers of bubble wrap… and I think they were in a box inside a bigger box with another layer of padding and protection. Whatever the exact strategy, it worked perfectly.

The cookies!

Word spread quickly through the building that I had received these masterpiece cookies. I shared them with a select few people – one being the Division Sergeant Major, SgtMaj Wayne Bell. Years after this deployment ended, any time our paths crossed he’d remember the cookies and ask about mom and dad.

I’ve since made the same EGA cookies… and questioned my own sanity throughout the process.

The thought, time, care, and love put in to these gifts really made this Christmas special… and eased some of the sting of being so far away from home in a combat zone for my first solo Christmas.

Everyone on base did their best to show some holiday spirit. We decorated the foyer of the “Girl House” where all females on base lived (there weren’t many of us).

Girl House tree and stockings
Sign hanging from the second floor of the Girl House.
Our nativity scene (my favorite).

The chow hall was decorated and they served a slightly more palatable meal than normal (though not memorable… I have no idea what the menu was). The tables were red and green with festive centerpieces. We also got to live large and enjoy some Welch’s Sparkling Cider.

G-1 Marines at the chow hall
G-1 Marines at the Chow Hall
G-1 Marines at the chow hall
G-1 Marines at the chow hall

Santa even paid us a visit!

The only other memory that sticks with me all these years later was attending the late night church service on Christmas Eve. I’m not a super religious person, so I was almost never at the chapel… but there was something solemn and serene about that night. We each had candles and we sang Christmas songs. “Silent Night” is the one I remember.

Our base, Camp Blue Diamond, was a favorite target for our opposition. We received rocket and mortar fire almost daily. It would be followed by the sound of a barrage of friendly weapons from across the river. Snake Pit, Hurricane Point, and Camp Ar Ramadi, on the south side of the Euphrates river, usually acted as our defense. There were several phone calls home that were cut short. Something would go “boom” nearby and my parents would hear it on their end (after several seconds’ delay, of course). The conversation was then “Molly, what was that?!?” followed by me saying “Gotta go. Love you!” It got to the point where the booms were normal… expected. Any quiet, any silence, for longer than normal put us on edge.

So you see, “Silent Night” and the overall ambiance of that Christmas service was… different? Calming somehow? It’s still difficult to spell out exactly what that feeling was.

Side note: I’m pretty sure “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was either never played, or was very quickly skipped over.

The day after Christmas everything returned to normal. To our “normal” at least.

Almost a decade later I was out of the Marine Corps, working a temp gig in an HR department. We were in a discussion about extending a job offer to someone, and my coworkers were concerned about timing or start date or something. The college-aged applicant was on the east cost, we were in San Diego, and Christmas was only a week or two away. My coworkers then drifted in to a conversation about their first Christmases away from home, and how hard it was to be away at college (many still in their home state) during the holidays.

I had to leave the room. I now try to remind myself that everyone experiences life differently, and it’s unfair to them (and to me) to compare experiences and pass judgment. I still have a tough time in these scenarios, but I try.

A friend of mine, Melissa V. (Marine wife and exceptionally talented musician) wrote a song called “Don’t Forget the Warrior.”

She sings:

I hear the church bells ringing, bright on Christmas day

Here inside the sanctuary where I know I’m safe

But somewhere in the desert where no glad tidings reach

Think of the sister who gives her life for peace.

But somewhere in the desert there is a tired soul

Think of the brother and what he’s fighting for

Remember the husband who leaves his wife behind

To turn into a hero in his daughter’s eyes

And don’t forget the warrior

Alone on Christmas Day

They play his favorite song about a silent night

I wonder if they know that there is still a war outisde

Somewhere in the desert he sings it on his own

It somehow brings him comfort that all is calm at home

Excerpts from “Don’t Forget the Warrior” by Melissa V.

To this day, whenever I hear “Silent Night” I’m reminded of that deployment. When I hear “I’ll be Home for Christmas” it still hurts a little. They also remind me of these happy memories, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Mike Roth

    I vividly remember PFC Howe checking into 1stMarDiv and being tagged to deploy immediately. I also remember the chicken who went to desertion because he was afraid to deploy. I’ll always have great respect and admiration for you, Marine! Semper Fi

  2. Julie Franco

    Wow! Molly, I thank you for sharing your Marine experience. Also thank you for your service. I wish you could share this with a media source. New York Times… I can see your Mother working very hard on cookies and making you very epic boxes. Merry Christmas!🎄

  3. Bill Howe

    Your story is thoughtful and inspirational, Molly. Perhaps more so in this difficult time. You write well. Thank you for sharing.

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