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Their Christmas At War

Photo by Master Sgt. Winston Churchill
Photo by Master Sgt. Winston Churchill (Photo by Master Sgt. Winston Churchill)

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By David Ignatius
Friday, December 22, 2006

Thanks to a military blogger who calls himself "Blackfive" ("The Paratrooper of Love"), we have a snapshot of what Christmas looks like this year at Camp Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad. It's a man dressed up in a Santa Claus suit, standing behind a "sleigh" that is actually an unmanned aerial vehicle and six soldiers who are wearing antlers and perched precariously on the launch ramp.

Or we can read this Christmas message posted Dec. 21 from "Lt. Col. Patrick," an Air Force C-130 pilot. Next to a picture, taken at his base, of a Christmas tree decorated with festive lights, he writes: "Holiday deployments are difficult but the one characteristic that comes from being away from home at this time of year is that everyone else misses home too. You don't hear people actually complain about missing Christmas at home I think because we're all in it together." Misery may love company, but in the military, it keeps its mouth shut.

This holiday season, America is struggling through a searing national debate about Iraq. The horror of the war feels immediate, even to people who've never been near Baghdad, but less so the humanity of the thousands of American soldiers who are serving there. That's part of the Iraq disconnect: The war dominates our political life, but the men and women in the midst of it often are nearly invisible. We see them in thumbnail photos in group obituaries but not as real, living people.

If you read soldiers' blogs, and I've looked at several dozen over the past few days, you see a recurring anger that the media aren't telling their story. So I'll let a few of the military bloggers speak for themselves. If you want to share in the conversation, a good place to start is http://milblogging.com, which collects blogs from soldiers deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

Needless to say, the first thing most American soldiers are thinking about is getting back home. They wait for a magic acronym: RIP/TOA, which means: "Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority." In his blog, "Duty in the Desert," Lt. Col. Patrick writes: "You can easily tell the folks that have been here awhile from the newer arrivals. New guys tell you how they're doing and what they're feeling. The old heads, deployed longer, start off every sentence with how many days remaining in their tour."

A young woman who calls herself "Techno" has a small Christmas tree at the foot of her bed. She explains in her blog that she broke up with her boyfriend before joining the Army and coming to Iraq. She wrote this week: "I really can't think of a better place to go through all of this. Back home, I would have been a mess for a lot longer and really would have gone back to him."

Her motto atop her Web page reads in part: "I belong to the Army. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it doesn't."

What does Iraq mean? For many soldiers, the big issues debated back home are less important than the simple reality of being there. A 23-year-old soldier who calls himself "Dreadcow," who recently returned home, tries to explain: "As much as it sucked I wouldn't trade my time in the desert for anything. . . . When people ask me what I did during the war I don't have to say I shoveled [expletive] and picked strawberries." Dreadcow says he has learned two things from Iraqis: the importance of having a special place for your gun at home, and the requirement that "every male should have some sort of facial hair."

The military bloggers celebrate their heroes, like Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, a 19-year-old Army gunner from Knox, Pa., who died Dec. 4 falling on a grenade that was thrown into his truck, thereby saving his buddies. His platoon sergeant explained: "He had time to jump out of the truck. He chose not to." His friend Pfc. Brennan Beck said of him: "He loved it here in Iraq. He loved being a gunner. It was a thrill, he loved everything about it." He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

War changes people. That's something that comes through powerfully in these soldiers' accounts of life in the battle zone. "Grey Eagle," the moniker of a 35-year-old combat medic serving with the 101st Airborne Division, writes in her blog, "I have been living in another life time another dimension so separate from the world I left behind that I fear I may never really find my way back. Will those I love be able to accept me if I was not the exact person they knew. Would they be angry with me for the loss of my innocence."

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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