Published January 13, 2015
"I didn't even know it was Christmas until someone told me," Lt. John Caras, 37, of Grand Rapids, Mich., said Saturday.
The military was planning a Christmas Day dinner of turkey and ham, but for most guardsmen, the trip home in less than two months was in the front of their minds.
"These guys are calling me a Grinch because I'm not in the Christmas spirit. My mind-set is, 'We're here to do a job,"' said Lt. Micah Bell, 29, from Valparaiso, Ind.
Bell, a firefighter for the National Park Service, said a typical day in Iraq — the unit is charged with site security — consists of much talking about going home. Their 150-member unit based in suburban Grand Rapids was deployed Jan. 2. Unit members started a countdown to homecoming with 90 days to go. Now they're a month and change away.
"I'm celebrating Christmas in February," said Sgt. Bryan Vandenberg, 22. "I'd prefer not to think about what's going on at home."
His colleagues at the Mercantile Bank of Michigan nonetheless sent him 24 packages, a show of support that put a smile on his face.
Along with the packages, Vandenberg was handed a stack of red-and-green cards Saturday, right in front of a half-dozen fellow soldiers.
"This one's from my mother-in-law. That's a good sign," he said after looking at the top card.
"This one's from my mom," he said, moving to a second. "She misses me. She's saving my gifts until February."
A couple of paces away, Spc. George Pearce of Dowagiac, Mich., and Spc. Aaron Berends of Grand Rapids donned Santa hats and posed for pictures, with Berends shirtless on the balmy, 60-degree Christmas Eve.
The U.S. plans to cut troop levels in Iraq in the new year. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that President Bush had authorized new cuts below the 138,000-soldier level of most of 2005.
The top military commander and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq said in a statement that the cuts would involve two combat brigades, or about 7,000 soldiers.
Sgt. Allen Noles of Grand Rapids said Saturday it was unfortunate he had to spend Christmas in Baghdad, but he said his family back home is safer because of the work his unit is doing.
"I've got a 4-year-old and a 3-year-old, so I like Christmas," the 35-year-old police officer said. "But I know that because I'm here they can enjoy it there."
The family of Pfc. Pete Plaska has several members overseas this Christmas. His sister is in Kuwait, and his father is in Afghanistan, both with the National Guard.
His mother, he said, is "holding together. But I don't think she's telling me everything."
And does it feel like Christmas in Baghdad?
"Not really. We try. We've got decorations up. People back home send us gifts. That makes it better," the 20-year-old said. "I've got packages from people I've never even met."