BAGHDAD - Pvt. Amber Leonard burst into the office with a sack of presents slung over her shoulder. The Fort Lewis human resources specialist sported a wide smile and a headband with foam reindeer antlers, bells and white fuzz.
“Santa’s helper’s here!” she announced.
She reached into the sack – really just a 50-gallon trash bag – and handed out wrapped packages. Each contained candy and other comforts for the troops of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a gift from the unit’s family readiness group back at Fort Lewis.
Leonard, a 26-year-old California native, helped deliver the presents around the unit buildings at the massive Victory Base Complex. For some soldiers who weren’t in their office, she left a stack of gifts near their door.
“You make a really good Santa Claus,” Pfc. Mitchell Fosman told Leonard after she dropped off packages at the public affairs office.
“Thanks,” she replied. “But remember: I’m just his helper.”
The war was put on hold for Christmas for thousands of troops based at the massive Victory Base Complex in Baghdad, where soldiers spent their day attending church services, playing video games, throwing a football around the gravel paths of the housing pads or talking to loved ones online.
Leonard, on her first deployment, spread Christmas cheer around the buildings that comprise 4th Brigade’s headquarters on Camp Liberty. She visited the brigade’s tactical operations center, where Friday was no holiday for the soldiers overseeing combat missions across the brigade’s area of operations of northwest Baghdad. The soldiers spent much of their day listening to radio chatter, staring at maps and monitoring aerial surveillance video feeds, but they did stop to tear into the packages and compare what they received.
“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Leonard yelled as she closed the door behind her.
KEEP YOUR SAFETY ON, RUDOLPH
Sgt. Martin Contreras dressed jolly but was ready to kill.
The 23-year-old soldier from San Diego spent Friday morning preparing for a mission to deliver the brigade’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Darron Wright, to visit troops at two joint security stations west of the city.
Contreras pinned a stuffed reindeer just above the M-9 pistol on his bulletproof vest and wore a Santa hat. But he and a younger soldier spent some pre-mission downtime discussing when and how to fire during the mission.
“If Rudolph has to come off,” he said, patting the stuffed animal, “it’s going to be a bad day.”
Across the base, Santa hats replaced many soldiers’ soft caps. Wright, about as proud a Texan as one can find, wore a Santa hat emblazoned with the burnt orange logo of the Texas Longhorns and posed for photos flashing the school’s trademark “Hook ’em Horns” hand signal.
But troops from the brigade’s 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment topped them all. One soldier wore a full Santa outfit underneath his battle kit. And when his Stryker drove through Iraqi police and Iraqi army checkpoints, they blared Christmas carols from the loudspeaker.
“Now those guys,” Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins said, “are really in the Christmas spirit.”
TACO BELL AND CINNABON
The clerk at Cinnabon knew Spc. Amanda Nagle’s order before she approached the counter: a vanilla latte with coconut and extra whip.
Yep, this Fort Lewis soldier is a Washington native.
The 28-year-old Gig Harborite and her friend Spc. Tiffany Hennessy serve with 4th Brigade’s 702nd Brigade Support Battalion and planned on relaxing most of Friday. They knew the dining facility, with its promise of carved meats and a fulsome holiday spread, would be packed, so they headed toward the food court near the base’s post exchange.
Nagle sipped her coffee and munched on Taco Bell. Hennessy, a 21-year-old Californian, devoured one of Cinnabon’s signature jumbo rolls.
“I’d like to say we’re eating here to do something special for Christmas,” Hennessy said. “But we come here a lot.”
The day would feel like Christmas later for Nagle. She planned on using a Webcam to watch her two daughters, 8-year-old Taylor and 7-year-old Alycia, open Christmas gifts.
And because of a dash of bad-luck scheduling, Nagle didn’t have a chance to see her husband on Christmas. Sgt. Anthony Nagle serves with the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment but was at a joint security station in Abu Ghraib as part of a 48-hour rotation.
The outpost lies just a few minutes outside one of the gates of Victory Base Complex, but soldiers still need to travel in armed convoys to get there.
“It sucks that I don’t get to see him,” Nagle said. “But I understand. The mission’s gotta get done.”
‘SMILES ON PEOPLE’S FACES’
Pfc. Kristin Holloway and Pfc. Joshua Carr aren’t a mister and missus yet, but they’re close enough to play Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Carr popped the question to Holloway during the couple’s leave a few weeks ago. So when their battalion looked for two soldiers to play the part of Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Raider Inn dining facility, the couple got the nod.
They stood on a stage with fake snow, a Christmas tree, a small shed and stars. Dozens of people, ranging from service members to contractors to an Iraqi television crew, stopped to pose for photos.
“Hey, it’s better than sitting in (the dining facility) clicking away the headcount,” Holloway said.
The line for the chow hall stretched past the ID checkpoint. Inside, plates spilled over with turkey, ham, prime rib, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cake and all the other ingredients of a hearty holiday meal.
And as they left, two other soldiers dressed in Santa outfits handed care packages donated by the American Red Cross.