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December 28, 2005

Live from Iraq: The best Christmas gift: a quiet day in Mosul

BY LT. COL. JOHN G. NORRIS
U.S. ARMY 4TH BATTALION
23RD INFANTRY OF THE STRYKER BRIGADE

LEO is publishing occasional reports from Louisville native John G. Norris, who holds a key Army command in Mosul, Iraq. This is the second installment.

Sitting in my office, I heard a knock and the distinct sound of someone yelling, “Ho, ho, ho.” The door opened and our Headquarters 1st Sgt. Darin Larsen walked in, a combat-equipped Santa’s helper dressed in combat uniform complete with Santa hat, yellow ballistic glasses and beard, carrying his bag of goodies over his shoulder. The bag wasn’t the expected red — it was an Army duffle bag that ably held many handmade stockings, which were sewn and filled by our spouses and family readiness groups, many supporting veterans and other volunteers back at our home duty station, Ft. Richardson, Alaska.

1SG Larsen assumed the responsibility of personally delivering a stocking to every soldier in headquarters company. For many, this was the only gift they would receive at Christmas, and leaders like 1SG Larsen, who added the Santa touch, are the individuals who help make this season bearable. He brought a smile to my face, and I enjoyed digging in the stocking like a little child to find all of the wonderful surprises.

The candy was nice, but it’s what was included that touched my heart. Inside each stocking was a beautifully printed note on parchment paper that read: “We would like to wish you a very Happy Holidays! Please know that these stockings were made with love and our hearts and prayers are with you, especially during the holiday season. May God keep you safe from harm and return you to the ones who love you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”

Christmas was here. We were all well aware of the date and significance, but it did not carry the same excitement or energy it does when we’re at home with family and friends. We made every attempt to make it bearable, but most of us simply wished for this holiday season to pass quickly, knowing we could not let our guard down emotionally in this very unforgiving environment.

Most had little Christmas trees in their rooms and offices, with packages around the bases, patiently waiting to be opened on Christmas Day. The battalion was overwhelmed with soldier packages coming in by the dozens from all over America. For example, I was personally mailed more than 30 boxes of goodies and health care items from the Louisville Ford UAW Truck Plant and the American Legion GI Joe Post 224. This doesn’t include numerous packages from family and friends. This outpouring ensured that our soldiers all received something from home. No one was left out.

I had the privilege of sharing Christmas with my wife and two boys over a Webcam. The 12-hour time difference meant it was Christmas morning for me and Christmas Eve for them. It was wonderful, and I enjoyed watching my boys open one present in front of me.

This is obviously no substitute for being there, but I am thankful that security conditions in Iraq and digital technology afforded me the opportunity. We have several computer and phone banks within my battalion for soldiers to use, and several more are available at the morale welfare center.
Modern communications meant that soldiers all over Iraq were in touch with their families in real time through Webcams, chat rooms, e-mail and phones — a huge improvement over Desert Storm, where we used to read 15-day-old letters. During that war, I recall watching excitedly, along with other soldiers. as my first son, Nathan, took his first steps. We saw that on a VHS tape that played on a TV in the middle of the Saudi desert with a generator humming in the background. I remember trying to hold back my emotions while watching this milestone in my son’s life, and this year, I was able to see and enjoy Christmas with both of my children in real time.

Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Zavodsky and I then visited some of our soldiers operating at a few combat outposts. We donned combat gear and filled our strykers with several boxes of goodies and off we went. There was a chill in the air with overcast skies. It began to rain, which stung our faces but added another level of security to our travels because it kept the enemy indoors. We delivered our packages and wished our soldiers a Merry Christmas and thanked them for their service to the nation.

Our next stop was the dining facility, so we could take the rare opportunity of working the food line and serving our soldiers their Christmas feast. It is a holiday tradition in the military for leaders to serve soldiers. The food was incredible, and we enjoyed the fellowship and getting to overfill the plates with chow. Many soldiers I spoke to had huge smiles, and I offered a second plate because their first plate was too small to hold everything.

Every possible combination of food was available — turkey, prime rib, ham, chicken, vegetables of every kind, dressing, sweet potatoes and shrimp cocktail, to name a few — and they could have as much as they wanted. A special drink bar was made up to serve many types of non-alcoholic beers and non-alcoholic grape juice champagne in real glasses. The dessert bar was just as nice, with delicious homemade pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan and chocolate.

And the best, you could have cake and ice cream, too!

Even with the cold and rain, it was a packed house, with the lines to enter the dining facility extending more than 100 yards. The soldiers didn’t mind, though, because the food service personnel had gone out of their way to make it special for the soldiers.

Army Chief of Staff General Peter J. Schoomaker walked in while we were there and ate with several soldiers. This was his opportunity to visit with us and to wish us season’s greetings. And on Christmas Eve, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited to serve and eat dinner with many soldiers in my brigade. These command visits are always welcome and the soldiers enjoy seeing senior leadership.

Meal finished, we all departed the dining facility with bellies full, only to pass by large baskets of candy and free cigars provided by the morale welfare recreation staff.

Christmas was coming to a close, and I found myself reviewing notes at my desk and thankful for another relatively quiet day in Mosul. This was a relief, considering the very active week we just finished. This week alone, we removed 16 AIF (anti-Iraqi forces) from the streets — all very active and dangerous terrorists cell members — along with two vehicles, multiple weapons, sniper rifles and ammunition. We also destroyed a crude chemical factory, captured a kidnapper with masks and handcuffs, reduced several IEDs (improvised explosive device) and had only one soldier injured as a result of enemy contact. He is stable and recovering well.

Considering the environment, the best gift I received this Christmas was a peaceful and uneventful day in Mosul, Iraq.