- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

BAGHDAD — The men of 1st Lt. Michael Anderson’s platoon thought their Christmas Day patrol would be an easy one: just drive through town and photograph friendly local leaders for a guidebook to hand to the company that soon would be taking over their sector of southwestern Baghdad.

Despite gray skies and a cold, steady rain, Lt. Anderson, 28, and his convoy of three armored Humvees pulled out of Camp Falcon cheerily, with guitar-heavy sounds of Metallica blaring from Sgt. Brandon Shaw’s CD player.

Spc. Steve Bobb, 24, of Meigs County, Ohio, gripped an M-16 and a mounted machine gun at the rooftop portal of his Humvee.

“It basically [expletive] being here Christmas,” said Lt. Anderson, a native of Griffith, Ind. “But now I feel good.”

A few minutes into the mission, their hopes for an easy afternoon were dashed. Headquarters radioed in with a new order: head to Route Irish, the deadly road leading to Baghdad International Airport, and secure it for an hour.

The mood soured. The conversation ended. Two of the battalion’s men had already been killed on the road and nearly two dozen injured. Sgt. Shaw, 23, a State College, Pa., native sitting behind the wheel, sullenly made his way toward the airport. He turned off the Metallica.

Across Iraq, U.S. soldiers tried their hardest to make the best they could of a tough, dreary Christmas Day. They celebrated with fellow soldiers and enjoyed visits by TV host David Letterman, who performed for Marines near Fallujah Friday night, and the punk band the Vandals, which played for the soldiers at Camp Falcon, south of Baghdad. Many guzzled near-beer and nonalcoholic champagne and longed for the lights, sounds, sensations and warmth of Christmas back home.

There were more quirky celebrations of the holiday. At Camp Falcon, a soldier in a Santa hat drove a tractor adorned with reindeer antlers.

One soldier had scrawled “Merry Christmas” into the grime caked on his Humvee. Spc. Robert Rosa, 25, of Hoboken, N.J., wore his combat boots and a pair of new Santa boxer shorts and knocked on fellow soldiers’ doors to wish them a merry Christmas.

“They thought I was crazy at first,” he said. “Then they started laughing.”

But for the most part, Christmas Day passed by like any other day, with soldiers fixated on their survival and their comrades’ spirits.

“To be honest, we’re all about trying to get out of here,” said Staff Sgt. Miguel Molina, 34, a scout from Hammonton, N.J. “You sit in the forward operating base, and you got rockets and attacks every day. You don’t focus on all the holiday stuff. I just don’t want to send none of my guys home in a body bag.”

Like Sgt. Molina, a 14-year Army veteran who has spent countless Christmases abroad, many of the soldiers in Iraq have grown used to being away from their families during holidays. It’s the young soldiers that get depressed, grow discouraged and are in danger of losing their spirits and mental agility.

During his first overseas deployment in 1991, Sgt. 1st Class Karl Kusch of Cherry Hill, N.J., spent Christmas pouting in his room. Now he walks around camp, giving sad young soldiers pep talks.

“I make sure they’re not out there hiding in their room waiting for the day to end,” said the 16-year Army veteran, who will celebrate his birthday in Baghdad tomorrow. “A lot of the young guys want to do that.”

But Lt. Anderson’s platoon had no time to sulk. They were headed for one of Baghdad’s most dangerous areas, second only to Haifa Street, where a prominent university professor was fatally shot yesterday. They made their way past Iraqi national guard checkpoints, often the target of suicide bombers, past angry drivers waiting in gas lines that stretch for miles, past unwary motorists veering toward them, past minibus drivers careening down the wrong side of the highway.

On two occasions, Sgt. Shaw bumped vehicles to get them to hurry out of the way or prevent them from parking along Route Irish. Terrorists have planted bombs, what the military calls improvised explosive devices, in such cars, triggering them as convoys drive by.

The rain poured through the gun turret. The streets began to flood. Traffic came to a halt. The men got nervous — cars were behind them and ahead of them, drawing in too close.

“What the [expletive] is this?” Lt. Anderson asked.

“Rush hour,” Spc. Bobb responded.

The convoy jumped the median and drove down the wrong way. Their one-hour tour of duty on Route Irish came to an end. The men relaxed and began heading toward the familiar, relatively friendly neighborhoods where they were to do mundane tasks.

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas,” the lieutenant hummed.

Months earlier, Sgt. Shaw suffered shrapnel wounds on his arms and legs when his vehicle came under attack on the airport road. But yesterday he spoke several times about his favorite falafel stand on the road, hinting to Lt. Anderson that he’d like to stop by.

“We’ve got all this Christmas turkey and potatoes and stuff back at the base, and you want a Christmas falafel?” Lt. Anderson asked.

Sgt. Shaw was quiet for a moment.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas,” he said. “How do you get in the Christmas mood here?”

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