CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq – With shouts of "Merry Christmas, devil dogs," Navy corpsmen clad in elf caps and antlers brought some cheer Friday to Marines spending the holidays in the Iraqi desert.
The group from the Navy's Bravo Surgical Company (search), which tends to the wounded at Camp Fallujah, crisscrossed the sprawling base in a seven-ton truck and a fire engine, singing carols to Marines who smiled, waved and took pictures. Some looked bemused when candy canes were tossed at their feet with shouts of "incoming!"
"We're getting to spend the holiday here, why not share it with the rest of the group," said Lt. Rex Macaspac, executive officer of the Navy medical unit. "I'm trying to make the most out it with what we have, trying to lighten everybody up, including myself."
Marines decked out the former Iraqi military base with lights and tinsel well before Christmas Eve. There is no snow, though it hailed briefly last week and the temperature has dipped below freezing in recent days.
A sparkling tree lit up a road leading out to the edge of the base. The mess hall was strung with red and green streamers, and camp buses all played Armed Forces Network radio's steady run of Christmas tunes.
Cards from kids around the United States festooned the walls. "Mery Christmas I hope you do not got hurt realy bad," read a misspelled card signed Dylan. "Thank you for protecting our country."
Earlier Friday, the Marines got a surprise visit from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), who also stopped in Mosul, Tikrit and Baghdad. He posed for pictures with troops gathered just outside Bravo Surgical Company, known best by its nickname, the "Cheaters of Death."
Rumsfeld joked he couldn't stay in Fallujah because his 50th wedding anniversary is Dec. 27.
"Can you imagine being married 50 years?" he asked the troops, who chuckled and jostled to shake his hand. "Is there anyone here who's 50? No, there's not."
Later, a civilian contractor in Santa Claus suit greeted Marines at the mess hall and joined doctors and nurses in singing carols. Troops set up video conference calls with their families back in New York and Chicago.
About 200 people gathered for an evening religious service led by chaplain Tom Thies. Because candles aren't allowed, it wrapped up with the lighting of glow sticks and a rendition of "Silent Night."
Some chaplains ventured into Fallujah (search) itself, which saw intensive fighting between Marines and insurgents Thursday, to minister to troops stationed there for weeks at a time, Thies said.
"We remember those who are on duty tonight, who keep the watch, who stand the wall," he told those at the service.
The war was not far away. Three Marines died in Thursday's fighting in Fallujah. And as the group from Bravo Surgical prepared to make its rounds, the sound of gunfire could be heard from a nearby practice range.
"There's nothing like singing carols with machine guns going off in the background," said Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a base spokesman.
The Marines gained the moniker "devil dogs" from German soldiers during World War I. On Friday, they were more subdued as they contemplated a holiday away from home.
This Christmas was 23-year-old Cpl. Erik Coy's first away from his family. He was matter-of-fact about missing the celebration and said he had kept in touch with relatives through the makeshift Internet cafe — where computers are separated by plywood sheets and a 20-minute time limit keeps the long line moving.
"It's a job. We signed up for it," Coy said after the religious service.
Others were a little more wistful.
"It's tough, but it's worth it," said Brandy Williams, a Navy nurse. "But it would be better to be home with your family drinking egg nog — with vodka in it."