While most Americans unpack their holiday decorations this month, hundreds of Army soldiers will be packing up desert combat gear for a tour of duty in Iraq.
Close to 1,500 soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg have received deployment orders, to help boost the U.S. military presence during the Jan. 30 Iraqi presidential election.
"Do we want to go to Iraq? No," said Sgt. Ricky Royals with the 65th Military Police Company Airborne. "But do we want to serve our country and stop terrorism? Yes."
Heading back to Iraq
Royals returned in April from a year-long tour in Iraq. He plans to spend what's left of the holidays with his family in Myrtle Beach, S.C., before leaving for Iraq. With the confidence of a seasoned combat veteran, the 23-year-old MP says he's well-prepared to return to the war-torn region.
"We know what to expect ... [we know] their tactics. We've trained on it hard-core. I'm looking forward to it," Royals said.
It's a particularly tough time to leave for an Army specialist who has already served three months in Iraq.
Christopher Emsley is just settling into married life with his wife, Carla, and is a devoted father to her three sons.
"It's very hard. I just recently married; we just recently got a house. We had to put up the tree at Thanksgiving," he sighed. His family celebrated Christmas early, and he received a special gift.
"I got a voice recorder with my wife and kids' voices on it,” he beamed. He said he'll treasure those simple sounds from home as he performs his patrol duties in Iraq.
The 82nd Airborne soldiers take pride in their reputation as one of the Army's most elite strike forces. The division always has a brigade ready to mobilize anywhere in the world within 18 hours.
Division officers plan to distribute desert gear next week to the soldiers who'll go out in stages over the next several weeks.
Many soldiers left behind say they'd gladly head to Iraq during the holidays. Chicago native, Sgt. Alan Breghause, 23, says those leaving will get to do the job they've trained to do, and may see an added benefit as well.
"It's more or less exciting, ’cause if you make it through it, when you make it back, everything's taken care of. You'll have money in your pocket and feel really patriotic at the same time," said Breghause.
Deployment a boon for local economy
The deployment also gives a holiday present to the local economy. Area dry cleaners sew the custom patches onto soldiers' uniforms, and they'll see sales spike in the coming weeks. Local hotels are booked at record rates, full of reservists who fill in during deployments.
One reservist raring to go is Sgt. Keith Twichell, a 25-year-old Ohio State student from Cleveland. He's been on active duty for 19 months at Fort Bragg. Now he's anxious to use his training to help rebuild a nation.
"The elections are huge," said Twichell. "It'll change them to a Middle Eastern-type democracy. We're banking on them taking control of their own destiny." Then, reflectively, "I'm proud to be part of it."
The reservist is a former glass-factory worker who will leave behind his new wife when he deploys after Christmas. When asked how he plans to spend his final few weeks at home, his eyes twinkled like his holiday trimming.
"I'll give you the PG version, ma'am," he laughed. "I plan to go back to Ohio to visit both our families ... then spend some quality time with my wife."
Hard to leave during season of peace
The hasty holiday celebrations will soon give way to the serious work of soldiering.
The troops are well aware of their role in the historic elections in Iraq, yet they know how hard it will be to say goodbye during the holidays.
"My mom's worried," admitted Sgt. Royals, the MP from Myrtle Beach. "I had a brother in Afghanistan while I was in Iraq. It's really hard on her."
Hard, too, on the soldiers who have to leave during a season of peace, hoping to help preserve the peace a long way from home.