American soldiers here ate Christmas lunch in flak jackets and combat helmets and prayed for the dead in candlelit ceremonies, marking a somber holiday after the bomb attack on...
MOSUL, Iraq — American soldiers here ate Christmas lunch in flak jackets and combat helmets and prayed for the dead in candlelit ceremonies, marking a somber holiday after the bomb attack on their base Tuesday that killed 22 people, including six soldiers from the Fort Lewis-based Stryker Brigade.
Like the low, gray clouds in the sky, the attack loomed over Forward Operating Base Marez, brokering an odd partnership of Christmas and conflict at mealtimes and in prayers.
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During midnight Mass, some soldiers took off their flak vests and leaned them against the chapel wall next to wrapped gifts under a Christmas tree.
But the risk of a mortar or rocket attack kept soldiers and Army contractors in full combat gear in the community center during lunch, when they ate plates heaped with turkey and stuffing at long tables decorated with candy canes and wreaths.
They set M-16 rifles next to their metal chairs, salvaged from the mess tent that had been hit in the attack. Soldiers in Humvees ferried Christmas lunch to troops who could not break away from their duties.
“The work we have to do for our soldiers and in support of Iraq’s upcoming elections does not change,” said 1st Lt. Kelly Mitchell, 31, from Olympia. “But taking 10 minutes out of our day to recognize that it is still Christmas is important.”
Days in advance, commanders told their forces that insurgents could be planning more attacks during the holiday and ordered precautions.
Some soldiers chose not to go to the community center for lunch. Those who went were told to eat and go so there would not be large groups in one place at one time.
A suicide bomber, apparently wearing an Iraqi military uniform, detonated explosives packed with ball bearings for shrapnel in last week’s bombing, the worst such attack on American forces since the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis last June.
Christmas cards from well-wishers in the United States and addressed to “Any Soldier” were given out at the door of the center. One was handed to Pfc. Kristopher Kubiak, 20, who had hooked a few candy canes onto his ammunition pouch for safekeeping.
“It makes me feel good to do something like this,” he said, entering the center for Christmas lunch. “We get a little break from our normal routine.”
Many of the soldiers at the base tried to bridge the thousands of miles between them and their families, using satellite phones and the Internet. Mitchell sent flowers to his wife, Marian, through an e-mail order.
Many of the troops crowded into the center’s Internet cafe to contact family members using Web cameras and instant messaging.
Sgt. Audwin Wright, 24, smiled broadly in front of a Web camera and keyboard as he messaged his wife, Nikki, in Tacoma, who responded, “I need you to come home for a minute so you can blow his gift up,” referring to the punching bag she had bought the couple’s son, 3-year-old Tyriq.
“Get your brother to blow it up,” Wright responded.
“He smokes,” she typed back. “You know he can’t.”
They both laughed.
“I’m glad you called yesterday,” she typed.
“Well I wish I had more time,” he typed back.
“I want you to call more often. Just leave a message,” she wrote.
For half an hour, Wright and his wife exchanged details of their daily routines. He complained about the slow mail delivery. At one point she appeared to wipe a tear from her eyes.
The couple smiled often at each other through their computer cameras. Though close, they lacked privacy.
“You should let your hair down,” he typed.
“No,” she typed.
“Why?” he asked, typing away in the crowded computer room.
She laughed. “Umm. Behind you, silly.”
While the Wrights had to settle for computers, to the south in Tikrit, Jennifer and Jeremiah Pray relished their first Christmas together in more than three years of marriage.
The Prays 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. 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.
“It’s difficult,” said Capt. Jennifer Pray, 26, a combat operation-room nurse. “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.
Some soldiers chose the holiday as their time to renew 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.”