TIKRIT, Iraq – The roaring bonfire licked the dark sky as Jennifer and Jeremiah Pray leaned closer to the pulsing warmth. Their faces glowing, eyes bright, they relished their first Christmas Eve together in more than three years of marriage, not to mention the brief respite from the war going on around them.
The Prays, in an unfortunate series of coincidences arising from their military lives, have spent all of four months together since they wed in 2001. Although they are now both in Iraq, they are stationed at different bases, with different missions.
“It’s difficult,” said Capt. Jennifer Pray, 26, a combat operation room nurse from Biloxi, Miss., looking off into the fire, smoke twirling as a few large raindrops hit the dust. “Any time we spend together is precious to us, whether it’s Christmas or anything else.”
“It has made us stronger,” Capt. Jeremiah Pray, 28, an intelligence officer from San Diego, said of their time apart.
This year, with the help of the Army, the Prays spent the holiday together at a small compound near downtown Tikrit, attending a candlelight service at Camp Omaha and singing carols with hundreds of U.S. soldiers in full battle gear.
At far-flung outposts in Iraq, U.S. soldiers enduring a holiday season far from home, and even farther from the luxuries that usually befall them this time of year, attended talent shows, musical performances, religious services and gathered around festive fake trees, observing a holiday that reminds them of someplace else.
“We’re here so the people in our lives don’t have to be,” Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sinclair, commander of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, told his troops at the bonfire. “They’re going to have a great Christmas because of you. Next Christmas you’ll be home. It’s all about us all being here together. Don’t get focused on the fact that you’re in Iraq.”
For most soldiers fighting this war, Christmas was almost like any other day, with dangerous patrols, tedious guard duty and reams of paperwork. But the routine was broken up by feasts of lobster tail and roast turkey, soldiers wearing bright red Santa hats and reflections on the important things in their lives.
In the northern city of Baiji, Spc. Jeremy Staggs, 34, of Coleman, Texas, thought of his family, both the one back home and the one with him in Iraq, as he shared pizza and potato salad with his fellow troops. They also decorated a tree in the corner of an entertainment room and traded Secret Santa gifts.
“We had a Christmas party, and it was actually really good,” Coleman said Saturday afternoon. “Sure, it’s difficult being away from home, but what has made it all good is the support we’ve gotten from the American people.”
Soldiers acted like gleeful children as they opened packages sent from the United States, wrapped presents, food, toiletries, magazines, books and games spilling out. The troops played with electric race-car sets and new video games. Tinsel, wreaths and blinking lights adorned palaces taken over by troops and lit up forward operating bases.
Christmas in north-central Iraq was wet, not white. An extremely rare rainstorm hovered over the region much of the day, turning the dirt-covered terrain into a wintry muck under dark gray skies.
The weather couldn’t drown the spirits of Capt. Aaron Titko, 30, of Pickerington, Ohio. As he traveled the U.S. military’s main supply route – Route Tampa, a frequent target of insurgents’ bombs – he popped out of his Humvee’s turret wearing a full Santa suit, with a beard and hat, over his body armor.
In Tikrit at Camp Remagent, Titko pulled presents out of a large sack and handed them to Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste. The general spent the day touring bases and meeting with the 1st Infantry Division’s soldiers, spreading a message of hope for the future and encouraging young soldiers to stay in the Army and continue serving their nation.
Batiste burst out laughing when he saw Titko pull up to the curb. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget Santa Claus dressed up like that,” Batiste said.
First Lt. Mike Weisman, 23, of Woodbridge, Va., returned to Iraq recently after two weeks of vacation in the United States. Weisman said he decorated a tree with his parents and opened gifts before heading back to battle. He said that the actual holiday would be just another day at work.
“It’s not that big a deal, because I’m young and single,” Weisman said. “Christmas is just another check off the list before we get to go home.”
On patrols in Samarra over the past week, Humvees blared Christmas music at all times of the day, and soldiers’ radio transmissions sometimes came across with “Jingle Bells” or other festive songs in the background. Minutes after being attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade that injured three colleagues, a group if infantrymen broke the tension with a poppy version of “Let it Snow” on a portable stereo as they sped through piles of soft dirt, causing clouds of it to rise and blot out the afternoon sun.
Some soldiers chose the holiday as their time to remake their commitment to the U.S. armed forces, re-enlisting for new terms of service while out on the battlefield. Sgt. Christopher Brooks, 31, of Birmingham, Ala., took his oath in a plywood shelter on the outskirts of Tikrit as raindrops pattered above. He vowed to give the Army at least five more years of his life.
“I wish I could be home,” Brooks said after the ceremony, “but my work is here.”
Spec. Jonathan Snyder, of Bessmer, Ala., normally celebrates the holiday week in many ways, because the anniversary he shares with his girlfriend is Dec. 23 and his birthday is the 29th.
“I’m doing what I have to do,” said Bessmer, who turns 21 this year, riding in the dark confines of a Bradley fighting vehicle.
“You just have to grin and bear it. I know I’ve got to be here, and we’re here for a purpose, even if that purpose sometimes seems far away.”