It’s a few days before Christmas, and Staff Sgt. Andre Vappie is showing pictures of himself dressed in a red suit for the “Santa Claus 5K Run” that took place a few weeks ago at the U.S. military base here. As he scrolls through the photos, you can see at least 50 other guys in Santa suits celebrating the holiday season in this muscular way, far from home.
The big U.S. garrison here is not exactly the North Pole. It’s dry and dusty, and it has been getting rocket fire recently from Taliban fighters outside the wire. But nothing can stop the holiday spirit, even in a place where General Order No. 1 bans the consumption of alcohol and loved ones are thousands of miles away.
A visitor couldn’t help noticing the Christmas trees and twinkling lights across the war zones last week. You might imagine that it’s just a show to maintain morale, until you hear Sgt. 1st Class Deidra Hammonds talk about how she’s going to fill the stockings lined up on the wall at the headquarters of a combat aviation brigade. On Christmas Day, she plans to be “Secret Santa” for her friends, giving them gifts she has ordered via the Internet.
There’s even a string of Christmas lights entwined around the somber “Chain of Command” photos on the wall, giving a faint glow to the formal portraits of President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on down the line.
Maj. Gen. Jim Huggins, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and the top officer here, says that he plans to spend Christmas Day helicoptering to eight forward operating bases under his command. “Our goal is to give everybody a Christmas meal that doesn’t come in a brown bag,” he says, referring to the notoriously un-delicious “MREs,” or “Meals Ready to Eat,” that are sometimes the fare at remote bases.
Huggins has missed six Christmases with his family since 2002. He knows that the holidays can be a time of depression for soldiers. When he visits his troops on Christmas Day, “I’ll talk more about their families than about them,” he says.
It’s poignant to visit wounded soldiers at the holidays. At the combat hospital at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Lt. Casey Wolfe is recovering from a wound suffered a week before Christmas, when an explosion broke five bones in his foot. He hopes, with luck, to make it home to Kansas for Christmas.
Bagram Hospital treats Afghans, too, and in one of the beds in the intensive care unit lies a bandaged woman in a head scarf who was brought there from Zormat, in the east, after a grenade wound. Her bearded husband, a white turban on his head, sits with mute dignity as the American nurses dart past him.
I saw holiday decorations festooning three military bases in Kuwait, too, which has been the exit ramp for soldiers coming home from Iraq. Christmas stockings line the stairway up to the control tower at Udairi Air Base at Camp Buehring, just south of the Iraq border. Jamal Solomon, who helps supervise the flight controllers directing the dozens of helicopters lined up on the runway below, says she plans to leave a $25 iTunes certificate in each stocking, along with air freshener, “which is something that everyone needs.”
The last big flight of about 350 soldiers who’ve left Iraq was scheduled to depart Kuwait on Friday night, bound for Fort Hood, Tex. One man expecting to be on that plane is Sgt. Stephen Fogelberg, who just finished his fourth tour in Iraq.
Talking with Fogelberg on Thursday at Camp Virginia in northern Kuwait was like hearing a compressed history of the war. On his first tour in 2003 in western Baghdad, “we shot anything that moved.” By his second tour, in 2006 in Balad, “we had to have a positive ID, then we could shoot.” His last two tours, in 2008 and this year, were much calmer. “I was in the initial push, and then I got to close it down, and yes, I’m very proud.”
At 35, he’s already a grandfather, with his 19-year-old daughter having married a soldier, like her dad. Back home, there will be a Christmas tree, decorated in Dallas Cowboys colors, blue and silver, and his parents down from Syracuse, and his wife, who has spent so many Christmases alone. “Each deployment has made her stronger,” says Fogelberg.
But he’s unmistakably glad that this will be the last one for a while.