An Iraq Front Line Christmas Story

Presents under an 18” tree adorned our conference table at the office Christmas Day. Although a workday, we leisurely consumed a lunch on Christmas as grand as any back home. By time I reached the break room, only a skeleton remained of the deep-fried turkeys. I still do not know how it tastes, other than listening to the “This is the best turkey I’ve ever tasted” comments by those with better timing. I am so happy for them.

I argued that, born in Canada, I should get Boxing Day off. The Major laughed. Not only did I get to work a full day, I posted guard duty on a perimeter tower that night from 10 pm – 2 am and needed to return to the office by 8 am for another full day. That’s life in the Army. We remain at a heightened security level following the Mosul incident. Most enlisted soldiers in our unit have additional guard tower duties until the security level stabilizes. Officers, higher ranking enlisted soldiers and females of any rank are not on the guard tower duty roster. We perform guard duty with an Iraqi soldier, a combination that often does not work well if our soldier is a female. Their male-dominated culture views females so differently that their biases force us to bend our equality standards. Many Iraqi soldiers refuse to work with or take any amount of direction from a female. A few times in the past sexual harassment incidents arose resulting in the firing of the Iraqi soldiers involved. We are not likely to change their centuries-old traditions and, with our new status as guests in their country (not exactly, but closer to guests than, for example, occupiers) the simplest solution to the problem entails restricting female soldiers from working directly with Iraqis in any isolated duty.

The towers are open on three sides, allowing a full view of and direct fire access toward a long segment of the perimeter fence. The open stance also means that the tower stays cold at night. Temperatures drop into the low 30s every night and that night was no exception. The tower I occupied contains a kerosene heater similar to and slightly larger than a Coleman lantern. Since lights in a tower make them an instant target, the heater is maintained at a level producing only a dull red glow. Dressed in polypropylene underwear under my uniform, a Gortex jacket and gloves, I shivered most of the night, often walking a tight circle in the tower to keep my blood circulating.

The Iraqi guards work a 24-hour shift followed by two days off. Two Iraqi guards stay in a tower on shift although one is allowed to sleep on a cot in the corner. I climbed the stairs into the tower and discovered one guard sleeping under a single blanket, the other sitting on a stool and warming his hands over the heater. The latter stood and invited me to sit in the only chair. I checked the radio and night-vision goggles, and then joined him in the small circle of warmth.

The first guard I worked with spoke very little English, though still infinitesimally more than my Arabic. I learned that he is in his early 30s, is married and has two children, ages 9 and 12. He lives in Qayarrah and began working with Americans since the 101st Airborne arrived. He cleaned helicopters for them. When the 101st left, the helicopter population dwindled on this base so he started working as a tower guard. I sensed that he possessed an aircraft background and probably worked on the base in or for the Iraqi Air Force in some capacity though he did not directly communicate either of these assumptions.

Two meals arrived shortly before midnight. The guard ate a few bites of a pastry but ignored the boxed meals. He placed a tortilla looking flat bread on top of the heater. Soon the smell of warm bread with a hint of kerosene filled the tower. He broke the bread into several pieces, chewing each piece slowly. I alternated between watching him and scanning the horizon. He finished, rubbed his hands over the heater, politely woke up the guard sleeping on the cot and curled under the blanket.

The second Iraqi stretched, muttered a few phrases in Arabic, scanned the landscape and sat on the stool. After warming his hands for several minutes he picked up the two Styrofoam containers and handed one to me. Not accustomed to eating at night, I did not expect to receive, or necessarily want, any of the guard’s food. I lifted the lid. In the darkness I could not see more than an outline of the food yet the enticing aroma informed me the food did not come from our “If it’s bland, it’s grand” mess hall. Basmati rice covered with something that tasted like chicken, meaning it could have been almost anything; squirrel, snake, but not camel. I have heard from someone claiming to know through experience that camel does not taste like chicken. After a quick midnight snack I opened a bag of sour gummy worms and offered one to my companion. He took it, although I did not stop to think what it might have looked like to him in the dimness. I offered him another one after he finished but he refused, pointing to a tooth and muttering that it hurt.

He pulled out a tattered book and attempted to read it in the red glow of the heater. After several minutes of watching him squint at the pages I turned my flashlight on. He held a well-used Arabic-English phrase book. He flipped through the book, stopping at phrases such as “You are nice”… “My name is Abdullah”… “I am 25”… “I live in…” followed by the name of his nearby village. He pointed out several common sentences, teaching me to say them in Arabic.

Stopping at a page of religious terms, Abdullah asked me “Are you a Christian?” I replied affirmatively. “Christian good. I am a Muslim. Muslim good.” Then he made a gesture of holding out the index finger of both hands and moving them together, side-by-side. “Muslim and Christian should be like this,” he added, tapping his fingers together. I agreed.

He then turned to a page of occupational titles. “I am a carpenter,” he announced proudly. He told me that his father worked at the airfield as an electrical engineer. Well-educated, hard working yet paid very little by Saddam’s government. The family lived in poverty and scrutiny. Abdullah referred to Osama as “bad”, the terrorists as “bad”, his teeth as “bad” but he did not label Saddam that way. He appeared to be searching for a word far worse than “bad”. His face showing deep disgust. Finally he held an invisible AK-47 and said, “I shoot Saddam… I shoot him.” His anger against Saddam did not pass as quickly as the pages turning in the phrase book.

He asked me what I do in the States. I told him that I am an attorney, without going into details of just passing the bar and not having a full-time job in over five years. “Good,” he replied. “Attorney good. Are you Rick?” he asked. Rick? I looked puzzled. He pointed to a word in his book. Rick, written with a “k” and pronounced in that manner by Abdullah. The word directly beneath Rick was translated “Poor” so I concluded he meant to ask me if I am rich. I do not consider myself rich according to American standards, but after listening to him describe his poverty, I do not feel poor either. I am married to someone I adore, we have a combined family of six great kids, I am blessed with hundreds of friends and acquaintances, inside our home we do not need to be concerned about 30 degree temperatures in the winter, and I am not likely to get tortured in the U.S. for speaking my mind in political circles.

The bulb in my mini-mag flashlight burned out with about 20 minutes left in my shift. We warmed ourselves, monitored the perimeter, and chatted without the benefit of the phrase book. When I departed I said good-bye to him in Arabic. He beamed. One question continued to preoccupy my thoughts. Am I rich? If Abdullah could have in Iraq what I have back home he would consider himself rich. Some wealthy people do not possess, and cannot buy with all of their money, blessings in my life I sometimes take for granted; love, health, friendship, respect, opportunity, peace, joy. Yes, I am rich in the truest sense of the word. I am blessed. And I am grateful.

As I reflected on the four hours I spent in that tower, I wonder if I did find a miracle this Christmas after all. Like two shepherds watching for danger while hundreds of troops lay sleeping, we shared a meal in the darkness, communicated with the help of a worn translation tome, looked at bright stars in the clear night sky, and huddled around a small heater for warmth. His one simple question reminded me to be content in all circumstances, to be grateful for what I have rather than waste any amount of time or energy in regret over what I do not have, to live in peace, to remember that I am indeed rich no matter what my bank account tells me.

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