Published December 25, 2002
BAGRAM, Afghanistan – American late night TV star David Letterman spent Christmas Day with U.S. troops at a rugged desert base in southern Afghanistan where coalition forces have been hunting down suspected terrorists for a year, the military said.
The "Late Show" host flew into the U.S. base at Kandahar on Christmas Eve and dined with troops there, said Maj. Bob Hepner, 36, from Mount Joy, Pa.
Letterman had also been due to visit Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan, but the trip was canceled because of bad weather.
At Bagram itself, troops celebrated the holiday with a buffet of sliced turkey, apple pie and tall glasses of "sparkling" grape juice in champagne-like bottles. U.S. forces here are not allowed to drink alcohol on duty.
Meanwhile, Santa Claus, with a military police band around his upper arm, raced around the base in a black four-wheel drive handing out candy and chocolates to soldiers.
Hundreds of troops, given the day off, spent hours waiting in long lines at a base store for the chance to buy Western goods and military memorabilia.
For some, being away from home during the holidays was a first.
"This is my first Christmas away from home. It's difficult being away ... I just got engaged before I came over here," said 22-year-old Spc. Jason Blackwell, who was posted at a military checkpoint inside the base.
"We try to make the best of it and keep our hopes up. I'm getting married when I get back," the Whiteville, N.C. a native said.
Others have been away many times before.
"This is my fourth Christmas in about five years away ... last year I was in Kosovo, the year before that Korea, and two years before that, Bosnia," said 37-year-old Staff Sgt. David L. Smith of Dragoon, Ariz. "I'd like to be able to watch them open presents, nothing can replace that."
On Christmas Eve, about 50 to 60 troops attended one of several churches on the base, laying their guns on the floor and singing Christmas carols.
The holiday season takes place just days after the Dec. 21 death of 22-year-old paratrooper Sgt. Steven Checo, who was shot in a gunbattle with enemy fighters in the eastern town of Shkhin.
Another U.S. soldier was wounded over the weekend when attackers rocketed his tent at a U.S. base in Asadabad, near the Pakistan border. And in Kabul last week, two U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were injured in a grenade assault.