Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

My Christmas Card home near Kirkuk Iraq 2004.

On December 25th 2004 I found myself near Kirkuk Iraq, on a lonely FOB Called Gaines-Mills.  It used to be one of Chemical Ali's summer retreats, and was set up as a fire base to support anothe FOB by the name of McHenry near a ticklish little town called Haweeja, the only Sunni Arab town in Kurdistan.  Gains-Mills had a couple of main buildings on a hill, that included the main TOC, the Aid Station, and SF Compound, and the "motor pool", and a battery of 105mm Howitzers.  The central are had a few "shops" really just a few trailers, the DFAC, which was just a GP large with aircraft pallets as the "floor".  Finally there was "Cold Steel Base" where Charlie Co 1/27 infantry was based.

For two companies it was a very spread out base, that was almost 1.3 miles around.  It was very spread out and somewhat desolate, but as it guarded the main supply MSR to FOB McHenry it was considered a vital outpost, and as all such vital outposts had to have medical support.  To that end Charlie Company 225th Forward Support Battlion provided one (sometimes two) ambulance team and a treatment "Jump team" made up of a Doc (in this case a doctor) an NCO and two Junior Enlisted Medics, and all the medical equipment and support they came with.  This was in addition to the Medics that Bravo Battery 2/11 Field Artillery and Charlie Company 1/27 already had on had.

Like many such stories on many such FOBs throughout the whole theater, there was a lot of boredom, punctuated by sheer terror.  We responded to IEDs, provided support for LOGPACs (logistical supply convoys) had IDF (Indirect Fire), snipers, and more flies than you can shake a stick at (seriously they could form a cloud if you had food around).  In short Gains-Mills was a truly miserable place. 
Just to give you an idea of the"muddy" season.

Now to add to this picture of misery I need to explain something about Iraq.  It has only two seasons.  Hot (and dusty) and the muddy season.  It doesn't really rain, just kind of stays over cast, and there's mud everywhere.  Its kind of like living in a swamp, and even walking takes effort.  Worse, it gets mighty cold, with a pretty nasty wind that does its best to sap the warmth right out of your bones.  In short, it is a miserable country year round.

By this point 2nd Brigade 25th ID has been covering this area of Kurdistan for almost a year.  For a brigade out of Hawaii, we're pretty well sick of this place.  This was really before 15 month tours became the norm so when we were told that the brigade would be extended by a month possibly two to cover the elections we were to say the least, not thrilled.  Christmas came and a lot of us were really missing being home.  The brass knew this, and did everything they could to raise our morale

One of the first and, perhaps most cheesy things that was done, was that our replacement unit from the 187th Cavalry Brigade (Idaho National Guard) put on an extremely corny Christmas play, with their only female attachment playing the role of Mary.  The brigade being heavy with LDS presence valued Christmas a lot and really went out of their way to make it special for US despite the fact that they too had been away from their homes and families for nearly 6 months at this point.  The play was a hit.  All the soldiers cheered, and laughed at the truly awful stage craft.  No one cared.  It really was the thought that counted.  

Mary. . . well you kind of had to use your imagination on this one.
 Afterwards they put on a DVD of the Mormon Tabernacle choir, and they lead us in Christmas Carols.  Now I remember the singing was truly atrocious.  There being a few people intentionally singing off key, it didn't even seem like we were all singing the same songs.  It didn't matter.  There was an unspoken bond between everyone there that night. It really was the thought that counted. 

Officers and Senior Enlisted serve the troops for special days like this
The first thing, that's actually tradition in the Army, is that the Officers and Senior NCOs Serve the men (and women) not the other way around.  The second is that this is one of the few meal of the year that cooks, go out of their way to get right.  There aren't many times that you can say you've had good Army chow, but on Christmas, they do everything they can to make sure you can say that. 

1LT Maxwell of B Battery 2/11 FA serves Mashed Potatoes, Corn, and Gravy.
The Officers all put on goofy hats, Hawaiian shirts, or smiles.  Jokes were told, and generally everybody did their level best not to notice that the aircraft pallets were covered in mud, and it was really cold and miserable outside.  Everyone was sure to say Merry Christmas as often as possible.  Despite the misery, there were smiles all around.  It was almost over, we were almost home, and if we could not be with our families, then at least the Army family has here for us. 

The troops of B 2/11 FA, C 1/27 Inf and C 225 FSB enjoy their meal.  For desert Pumpkin Pie and REAL ACTUAL ICE CREAM! Notice the toppings WERE included.
The real surprise was the desert.  Not just the Pumpkin Pie, but real, actual Ice Cream!  I know it makes no sense to have Ice Cram when its freezing outside, but in Iraq, you take your pleasures where you can get them.  You better believe I had Ice Cream.  You better believe I was shivering for hours.  I loved every second of it. 

That night, the Bravo Battery FDC (Fire Directional Control) decided to show off, and had the entire battery fire off three salvos of parachute flares in the shape of a Christmas tree.  Sure it was lopsided.  Sure it was cheesy.  Sure it was probably a waste of money.  At that moment anyone that could see it didn't really care.  They were away from home, in a warzone, on Christmas.  Every little thing mattered.  I can say, that that was certainly one of the best Christmas' I ever had in the Army.

One of my NCOs told me something when I remarked how this made me feel, and I never forgot it.  He said; "when you learn to embrace the Suck, little things make a big difference."  This Christmas I hope you spend it with your loved ones.  I hope that you remember that it's a time of family, and that you should enjoy these moments, despite the hassle, the insanity of family, and maybe not getting the exact gift you want.  Trust me, moments like that are a gem, and should be treasured.  Wherever you are, wherever you find yourself I hope you take a few moments to remember the troops overseas, and perhaps appreciate a little bit more the things you do have.  

And to all of you regardless of your situation, I want to wish you all:



Sandra said...

Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas. Hope the New Year brings you success in whatever you are doing.

Outlaw13 said...

Embrace the suck indeed. I spent three Christmases in Iraq, they all pretty much sucked, each were a little different but they were all made a little better by sharing the season with your brothers from a different mother.

Unknown said...

Merry Christmas to you,also! :)

MSgt B said...

Merry Christmas Doc!

Unknown said...

I spent my 21st birthday, in Camp Doha Kuwait, where alcohol is forbidden. I spent my 23, 25, and 27th. Christmas
Over seas while deployed
With the 1st Cav in support of OEF And OIF, I was a 88M20. So it did indeed suck, but I wouldn't change it if I could.

Albert said...

I was in Bravo Btry 2/11 during this deployment and right there with you. Glad I stumbled upon this after a quick google search of Gaines Mills. Crazy to see pictures of that place again... if only I could get my hands on more pictures of all of us embracing the suck during this deployment.

Sgt Borja said...

I was there, I remember that the NCO with the Blk beanie. He was my boss, I was one of the mechanics. Good times at FOB Gaines Mills

Stephen Barns said...

I was at Gaines Mills at the time as well. You were correct, it was awfully muddy there for several months.