The sun was just beginning to rise, bringing a dim glow on a cold and clear Christmas morning in Baghdad, but the U.S. Army mission was late.
The Stryker armored vehicles were supposed to have rolled from Forward Operating Base Loyalty 11 minutes ago, at 6:30 a.m., yet soldiers were still milling about outside the green machines, shivering in bulletproof jackets and Kevlar helmets.
“Load up!” bellowed Jeffrey Huggins, battalion sergeant major for the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
The men began climbing into the back hatches of the Strykers, but not fast enough for Huggins: “Load up means all of you get in your trucks! It doesn’t mean stand there and look at me!”
Some of the soldiers tried to lighten the mood. “Merry Christmas, sir. Merry Christmas,” they called out, knowing they could have had it worse, since other platoons began patrols at 5 a.m.
“Get in the truck!” came the rattling reply.
Christmas was another working day for many in the battalion, heading out to cordon off a dangerous section of eastern Baghdad and go house to house searching for insurgents, weapons and bomb-making materials.
But the holiday — and thoughts of friends and family back home — never left their minds.
Packed inside the Strykers, some sang off-key carols for comrades guarding the base entrance as the vehicles roared out onto the streets of the Iraqi capital.
“Being out there Christmas Day, people are in a lot better mood than I thought they’d be,” said 1st Lt. Tim Price of Wise, Va., an officer in the battalion’s Company A. “They’re missing their families and their kids, but they’re out there working.”
As soldiers began searching homes, some Iraqis greeted them with smiles, offering sweet tea and fried bread.
“Merry Christmas, mister!” one man said as soldiers, their boots caked with mud from the unpaved street, clomped into his house.
Other locals bristled. “Why you come?” one woman demanded in broken English. “We have nothing.”
Another day, another protest
After a few hours, the mission was suddenly suspended. Several hundred people had taken to the street near a mosque, complaining about the house searches.
“No, no, America,” they chanted in Arabic. “Yes, yes, peace!”
Troops ran to control the crowd, but Stryker vehicles eventually rolled up, attempting to drown out the chants by blasting their horns. Protesters shook their fists and waved Iraqi flags.
Though tense, the demonstration stayed peaceful and many soldiers who had been on foot were ordered back into the Strykers. Iraqi troops and police began negotiating with the protest’s organizer, who U.S. officers described as the head of a mosque whose computer was seized when his home was searched.
Inside the parked Strykers, soldiers munched on dry rations and waited.
“I wish I was home now drinking some brandy slushes and opening presents,” said Pfc. Allen Groth, who was spending his first Christmas away from his family in Winona, Minn. He described a brandy slush as a frozen mix of brandy with tea and lemon and orange concentrate.
Attempting to sleep beside him, despite the 12 people crammed on the Stryker’s small, twin benches, Spc. Chris Martin of Nashville, Tenn., grumbled. “Yeah? I wouldn’t give you anything.”
While the soldiers waited, their superiors debated whether to continue the mission. The number of demonstrators swelled to more than 1,000.
‘Merry Christmas, Baghdad’
Asked what they might do with the rest of their Christmas afternoon if the mission were canceled, most of the soldiers said they were simply looking forward to the opportunity to shed their body armor for a few hours.
“I just want to eat and sleep,” said Spc. Jeremiah Westerfeld of Batesville, Ind. “Maybe clean my weapon and change my underwear.”
Spc. Jose Charriez of Hermiston, Ore., said he hoped for a hot shower. “And maybe a plate of food right after. That would be great for Christmas.”
Superiors finally called off the mission, but the ride back to base was tense.
Some Iraqis barricaded the road with burning tires and metal cables. After a squad of soldiers on foot cleared the roadblocks, teenagers and younger children threw rocks and chunks of concrete as the Strykers sped by.
Frustrated after hours of waiting, the soldiers shot paintballs and smoke canisters at their assailants from hatches in the vehicles.
“Merry Christmas, Baghdad,” Westerfeld joked between shots. “This is our present.”