The 101st Celebrates Christmas in Northern Iraq
By Pfc. Chris Jones, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
NORTHERN IRAQ, Dec. 23, 2003 Army Sgt. Paul Mauney had trudged through crowded Baltimore-Washington International Airport, pushing an artificial Christmas tree in a rolling cart and enjoying onlookers' attention.
MOSUL, Iraq -An M-249 squad automatic weapon stands perched under the Christmas tree at the 101st Airborne Division G-6 office at the former regime palace in the division's main compound in Mosul. Instead of under the tree, the presents for the members of the unit were on a nearby cabinet. Photo by Pfc. Chris Jones, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A week later, the "Freedom Tree" was sitting gloriously beside Mauney's office at the 101st Airborne Division's main compound headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, now adorned with bright lights and bells of silver, blue, red and green. Mauney, dubbed the "Christmas Tree Soldier," says his evergreen friend is a memory in the making - a charming, spirited combat zone comrade to him and his fellow soldiers.
"Christmas to me is very special," he said. "It's different in Iraq, because you're not with your family, but in a way it's the same, because you're with your Army family."
A personnel assistance clerk with the division's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Mauney is but one of the tens of thousands of troops in northern Iraq who are refusing to let the holiday season die - combat zone Christmas or bust.
Soldiers in Mosul, Tallafar and Qayarrah, the three main cities housing troops with or attached to the 101st, are immersing themselves into dozens of events celebrating the holiday season. Live nativity scenes, caroling, gift exchanges, raffle contests and even a "Best Grinch" contest are among the many activities spawned by troops.
Army Chaplain (Capt.) John Stutz, commander of the 127th Chaplain Detachment, a two-man ministry unit out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, attached to the division, said the work he's put in organizing events for the Christmas season "has been a joy."
"I think it's so joyful to see that, no matter all the things we don't have here, the spirit of Christmas remains," he said. "A lot of the stuff we treasure in America, we don't have here. But what we're learning is that this stuff isn't what makes joy; it just makes big piles of material possessions. The true joy comes from the inside."
Inside or outside, the 101st is making Christmas happen. Contractor Kellogg Brown and Root, which runs dining facilities across the 101st area of operations, has been offering soldiers a chance to win various prizes with a raffle contest dubbed "The 12 Days of Christmas." Soldiers get the chance to win goodies such as DVD players, compact disc players and various CDs, while dining in well-decorated facilities.
The KBR dining facility in Tallafar, for example, is so bedecked with Christmas cheer, each television set in the building is paired with its own Christmas tree, and the beverage stands are all adorned with 6-inch stick-on Santa Clause images. As Sgt. Marien Cuthbert put it while eating dinner and glancing around, "It's kind of hard to forget what time of year it is."
At the division's rear compound in Mosul, soldiers organized a live nativity service, while soldiers of the 501st Signal Battalion scheduled a Christmas caroling event for Dec. 22.
Soldiers of the 21st Combat Support Hospital are throwing a "Christmas Eve EVE Party" Dec. 23, while the headquarters company troops have arranged a Christmas Eve dance party with a disc jockey, free snacks and beverages.
The winner of the "Best Grinch" contest, a two-week long competition to determine the grumpiest soldier on the main compound, will be announced Christmas Day. Stutz, who helped organize the contest, said even the "grinchiest" of soldiers are coming around to the Christmas cheer, noting that the triumphant grouch will be awarded accordingly.
"Even the worst Grinches are saying, 'Yeah, this is all right,'" Stutz said.
Stutz has also been involved in Operation Shoebox, a nonprofit venture supporting service members in the Middle East. He's received hundreds of boxes in the mail from Americans in Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and other states to disperse among 101st troops.
"These aren't cheap things that are being sent to us," he said. "Some of these boxes are filled with over $50 worth of gifts. On Christmas Day, we'll hand the packages out to soldiers. I'm looking for the Grinches. They're the ones who usually need the gifts, not because they can't get what's in the gift elsewhere, but because they're usually the ones who need to be handed a gift, to let them know they've always got someone looking out for them. We want to make their heart increase three sizes."
Meanwhile the 101st's G-6 office, housed in a former regime palace, is buzzing with holiday fanatics. The self-proclaimed "best decorated office in the palace" received its Christmas makeover on Thanksgiving. Chief Warrant Officer Carrie McLeish, G-6 automation technician, contacted her mother and asked if she could send holiday decorations for the office. At the same time, Maj. Tim Solie had asked his wife, Diana, if she could do the same.
Decorations poured in. By early December, the office had been festooned with bells, lights and tinsel of red, green and silver, supervised by figures of Santa, angels and elves.
The holiday season has been strange for McLeish. She gets to be with her husband, Paul, a deployed Army staff sergeant who now works with her at the palace. "It's pretty funny," McLeish said. "It was nice to be able to decorate the Christmas tree with him out here."
While the bulk of 101st troops - in Mosul, Tallafar and Qayarrah - are enclosed in Christmas sentiment, soldiers in the more remote locales of northern Iraq rely on the inner strength and discipline they've acquired in Iraq to keep their spirits up until they return to the U.S.
Spc. Christian Hanna, an infantryman with 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, will spend Christmas on an isolated mountaintop in the Badush region of northern Iraq, on a mission to destroy unexploded ordnance in the area. He said he owes his high sprits to the division's forthcoming redeployment in February and March.
"We were looking to maybe get a Christmas tree up here," he said, "but we all sort of decided that no matter how we decorated this place, we're still alone. Our families are still back home. And it doesn't really bother me, because I should be home soon."
Back in Mosul, Mauney's six-foot Christmas tree has more than met its match. In the lobby of the Civil Military Operations Center stands a glorious 30-foot cedar tree. Around the evergreen mammoth stand a group of Iraqis, smiling and laughing. Chaplain Stutz, however, is utterly confused.
"That tree is bigger than any door in the building," said Stutz. "A team of Iraqi farmers helped bring it in, but I simply cannot imagine how they got it in through any of the doors. Every day, the farmers ask me, 'Do you see it? Do you see it?' I'm like, 'Yeah, I see it. And I don't know how you did it.'"
(Army Pfc. Chris Jones is assigned to the 40th Public Affairs Detachment, 101st Airborne Division.)