No let-up for Christmas for U.S. troops in Iraq
By Peter Graff
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Christmas Eve, late afternoon, and U.S. soldiers from 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment piled into their Stryker armored vehicles for a patrol out on the streets of Baghdad.
This is the fifth Christmas that U.S. troops have been out in Iraq, and commanders say the best way to keep morale up is to keep moving.
There are special dinners, packages from home, religious services and decorations around camp, but no let-up in patrols.
"My personal goal would be to try to go ahead and keep the mission constant," said Ray Ramsey, who has spent 23 years in the army and his third Christmas in Iraq, looking after about 100 men as the first sergeant of a Stryker troop.
"We want to recognize it, go ahead and acknowledge it and wish everybody a Merry Christmas. But if you make too much of it you give them probably an opportunity to dwell on where they're not and what they're not having right now," he said.
Iraq has become far less violent in recent months, and the mood among troops is visibly lighter than in Christmases past.
So far in December, 17 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq, putting it on course to be the safest month for Americans since the war began, according to figures on Web site icasualties.org.
Forty U.S. servicemembers died in Iraq in November, compared with 131 in May.
The 4th Squadron received a flood of goodwill packages this Christmas from friends and family of a soldier who was killed.
The squadron chaplain, Captain Bryan Smith, was giving out the gifts by opening up a Christmas Eve "store" where everything is free. He said he had given out Xbox controllers and portable CD players as well as soft-drinks and snacks.
Presents from home keep soldiers' spirits up, he said.
"You get the blues around Christmas time," he said.
"When they get boxes from home like that, they say: 'Hey, my family is thinking about me' and it gives them that touch, just like they're at home still."
Specialist Corey Jones, 20, found a stuffed reindeer in one of the care packages and was wearing it perched on top of the soldier's cap on his head. It's his second Christmas in Baghdad.
"I'd rather be home with my family, but I get used to hanging around everybody here," he said.
"This is my buddy Moe Moose," he said of the reindeer. "I figured I like to keep him on my head because it's like a second buddy for Christmas, so now I can spend the holidays with him."