WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 24 -- There are about 1 million people under arms -- U.S. forces, their allies and the Iraqi soldiers that confront them -- in the Arabian Desert this Christmas, facing off against each other a bit over a day's drive from Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born.
For the troops arrayed against Iraq, Operation Desert Shield will serve 340,000 Christmas dinners on Tuesday, offering roast turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, salad, vegetables and four kinds of pie.
There will also be ham, in quiet defiance of Saudi and Islamic prohibitions against pork, but the fruit cake will be brandy-less and the egg nog will be rum-less.
Still, while the meal is nice, many U.S. servicemen and women are relying on each other for the necessary Christmas cheer.
A little after 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Shane Cadlolo drew an ace and a wild card to a pair of aces, beating David Vidal's four queens and raking in about three pounds of poker chips. It was the biggest hand of the day to that point.
"We play for the chips," said Gig Brzycki, reaching across to replenish his dwindling stack from Cadlolo's winnings. "Yeah, and when we really get serious, we start betting sodas," Ron Estes said.
All across Saudi Arabia, close to 300,000 U.S. servicemen are playing cards, shooting baskets, eating candy and drinking "near beer" to mitigate what promises to be the loneliest holiday of the year in perhaps the most dangerous place in the world.
"We're talking about a mellow time with good fellowship," said Estes, a tallish, blond X-ray technician from Lemoore, Calif., who at 22 is the old man of the quartet. "You get with your buddies, and you'll make it through. You don't feel like partying."
"It looks like a long day," said Brzycki, 21. "A lot of Christmas Eve poker ahead."
The four Navy medical corpsmen -- Brzycki and Cadlolo from Camp Pendleton, Estes and Vidal from San Diego -- arrived in Saudi Arabia's northern desert in mid-August, assembling a forward field hospital from kits stored aboard a cargo ship.
They have been together ever since, and have become so accustomed to each others' company that they can complete each others' sentences.
"We play Ping-Pong, too, but we ran out of balls," said Brzycki. "They're white."
"And you can't see them in the sand," Estes continued.
"So you end up stepping on them," Vidal said.
"We need new ones," Brzycki said.
"Yeah," Vidal finished. "Yellow Day-glo."
Members of the Marines and its parent service, the Navy, cohabit aboard ship and ashore, largely because the Marines have no medics of their own. The medic's job is a fearful responsibility, a demon that sleeps with the corpsmen every night.
"Let's face it," said Cadlolo, 20, "what we're going to be doing isn't going to be pretty."
"We think about it every day," Estes said.
"Constantly," Vidal said. "I hate it here, but if I had a choice I'd gladly be here six months from now rather than have to see any of my Marine buddies die."
Christmas is perhaps the deepest trough so far in Desert Shield's emotional roller coaster.
Cadlolo remembers the first depressing news -- finding out he was coming to Saudi Arabia. "We were scared to death," convinced that war would break out as soon as they arrived, he said.
"I expected it to be done a long time ago," said Vidal, 21, who has never seen his 2-month-old daughter Jessica Lynn, "but I don't know now." Vidal is scheduled to get out of the Navy in three months, "but I think I can forget that."
The second bit of depressing news was the November announcement by Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney that there would be no rotation of troops. This hit the corpsmen hard, and drew them closer together.
Today they refer to their "desert family," the web of friendships that pulled them through the hard times.
"You get those Nintendo games, tapes, radios and stuff, you share it all," said Estes. "You can't afford to be stingy." He also got a videotape of his wife and family at Thanksgiving dinner and showed it to the others.
And now Christmas. In the corner of their game room, the corpsmen have a small Christmas tree with a few decorations.
Outside the field hospital receiving room is a pole with signs pointing in the direction of far-off places. A single green garland hangs from an arrow marked San Diego, the tail rustling in the dusty wind.
No services are planned for Christmas Eve, but the corpsmen think a little caroling might be in order. As the Navy guys in a Marine camp, they try to keep people loose.
The corpsmen, like their brethren in the Marines, have few Christmas presents, and have discouraged big packages. "We'll just have to carry them out of here ourselves," Estes said. "It doesn't make any sense."
But they have plenty of food to eat, plenty of games to play and plenty of books and letters to read, some of it sent by friends and family, most of it sent by strangers who want only to do a serviceman a good turn.
"It really gives you a lift," Brzycki said. "Tell everybody we appreciate the support. Tell everybody we'll be all right."