Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 25, 2004

'Quiet' Christmas Eve in Iraq

By Aamer Madhani
Chicago Tribune

FALLUJAH, Iraq — On a day that started with a surprise holiday visit from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Marines in Fallujah received an even more unexpected gift on Christmas Eve — a day of relative peace.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks to troops from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at a mess hall in Fallujah, Iraq, in this photo released by the Pentagon. Rumsfeld visited several U.S. bases.

Air Force Master Sgt. James M. Bowman • Associated Press

Just one day after three U.S. Marines were killed in fighting in Fallujah and the reopening of the city to residents, many Marines spent part of their Christmas Eve reflecting on the war they have fought and the fellow Marines they lost in battle.

Others tried to make the best of celebrating a holiday in a war zone, decorating their tents with Christmas lights and playing holiday music.

The day was not without violence, however, as a butane tanker truck wired with explosives blew up in a Baghdad neighborhood near the Libyan Embassy, The Associated Press reported. One person was killed and 19 injured in the blast, but there was no damage to the embassy.

In Fallujah, the site of some of the worst violence of the past few months, dozens of U.S. troops attended a makeshift candlelight worship service yesterday. Instead of candles, they made do with "Chem-lites," illuminating fluorescent green and red tubes that soldiers often use to mark their checkpoints. A group of U.S. Navy Corpsmen and contractors toured the base in a 7-ton cargo truck and a fire engine decorated in Christmas regalia and sang carols.

"Life is too short for you not to have fun," said Capt. E. Melissa Kaime, a Navy combat surgeon, who was among the loudest carolers. "We don't know if the missile could be coming in right now. You've just got to take life as it is and grab it."

'Three angels'


CHRISTMAS IN THE DESERT: There is no snow, though it hailed briefly in parts of Iraq last week and the temperature has dipped below freezing in recent days.

DECK THE HALLS: A sparkling Christmas tree illuminated Camp Fallujah, and the mess hall was strung with red and green streamers and Christmas cards from children around the United States.

HOLIDAY VISITS: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a surprise, morale-boosting visit to Iraq yesterday, donning a plastic apron at one Christmas Eve dinner to help serve food to the troops.

Fallujah has been the fiercest of battlegrounds in Iraq as American troops have clashed with insurgents many times since the beginning of the war. Last month's battle to reclaim the city from the control of anti-American fighters left scores of Marines and Iraqi security forces dead.

The city is in the initial stages of being repopulated. Yesterday, about 4,000 residents came back to inspect their homes, or what was left of them, the second day of such returns. However, the fighting continues in spurts.

On Thursday, Kaime and other members of the Bravo Surgical Company were chatting about their plans to go caroling when they received word to prepare for some Marine casualties who were hurt in fighting. When the three Marines arrived at the surgical tent on base, they were already dead, she said.

Kaime, who is a cancer doctor back home in San Diego, said she is accustomed to death. Still, she said the loss of these Marines tugged at her heart.

"They were dead on arrival — three angels," she said.

For fellow Navy Corpsman, Chief Petty Officer Damon Sanders, the day was made by a handshake from Rumsfeld. As Rumsfeld made his way through the surgical tent to visit wounded, he stopped to thank Sanders for his work and placed a gold Secretary of Defense coin in his palm as he shook his hand.

Sanders, who was spending his second straight Christmas in Iraq, said the token from Rumsfeld boosted his morale. He said he didn't understand the criticism of the secretary, who has been under fire over the past several weeks for remarks made in answer to a soldier's question during his last visit in the region and from high-profile Republican leaders in Washington over his planning and execution of the war.

"I don't think people understand the difficulty of his position," Sanders said. "I totally believe in him."

Rumsfeld's surprise visit to Iraq on Thursday went smoothly as he also visited with soldiers in Mosul, Tikrit and Baghdad. He met with the interim Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawar, and was briefed by several top commanders in Baghdad before heading back to Washington. Yes-

terday's truck explosion in Baghdad occurred hours after Rumsfeld left.

Rumsfeld does 'shaka'

Unlike his visit with troops in Kuwait last month, there was no tough questioning from soldiers during his stops at the various military bases.

When Rumsfeld last visited with troops, he received pointed questioning by a Tennessee National Guardsmen who was coached by an embedded reporter to ask why his unit was being sent into Iraq without proper armoring for their vehicles.

At the request of Rumsfeld's aides, Marines excluded embedded reporters from watching a town hall-style meeting with Marines in Fallujah. The small group of reporters who traveled with Rumsfeld from Washington for the Christmas Eve tour, however, was allowed to watch the meeting with soldiers.

During a short visit with Marines and Navy corpsmen before the town-hall meeting at a mess hall, Rumsfeld seemed at ease as he shook hands with service members and posed for photographs. He briefly addressed the troops to thank them for their service.

"I'm very grateful and am privileged for the opportunity to look you in the eye and thank you," Rumsfeld said.

At Camp Victory near Baghdad airport, Rumsfeld wore a black cowboy hat and served fish and shrimp in batter to troops with the Army's 1st Calvary Division out of Fort Hood, and delayed his departure to accommodate the throngs of soldiers who wanted their photos taken with him.

"It's great that he came here to visit, especially after what happened in Mosul," said Sgt. Keoki Pereira, 32, who got Rumsfeld to make the "hang loose" hand gesture of his native Hawai'i. "It's pretty amazing to see the secretary of defense coming here, even in this situation, to see what we go through every day."

Through the day yesterday, the sounds of incoming mortar and outgoing artillery could be heard in Fallujah, but there was no major combat reported in the city. The Marines seemed to savor the time to pause and reflect on the holiday and the war.

At the worship service, Chaplain Tom Thies asked the troops to pray for fellow soldiers who have been wounded and killed. "Lord, for those who are wounded, heal them," Thies prayed. "For those who have been lost, comfort their family and friends."

After the service, Staff Sgt. Cory Franklin, 26, the choir's leader, said that it is difficult to believe that he was celebrating Christmas in the middle of a war zone. "I'm truly blessed to be celebrating Christmas today," Franklin said. "When you're going to Iraq, you worry the worst can happen. I've been blessed to be safe."

Knight Ridder News Service contributed to this report.