Christmas in Iraq, 2003

We were relatively comfortable by December. We had a roof over our heads and cots cushioned with mini mattresses purchased through our local ice-man.* Next to my cot I had a few packages from my family that I was saving for Christmas morning. 


Yes I’m painting my toenails. And that’s a cast I acquired after some douchebag picked me up (without my consent) and then dropped me on my ankle after he realized I’m no 120 pound snowflake. Lamest. Story. Ever.

The daily grind, running operations in our little indoor ops corner, was bearable. Although punctuated by other platoon operations, illness, or injuries, we’d worked out a system in the squad that amounted to 8 hour shifts for each of us, leaving considerable “free time” to wallow in our holiday blues and chain-smoke like 3 packs a day… I think by that time we may have even had access to email. Conditions were much, much better than when we first arrived. 


I’m the goofy-looking one in the middle.

Our 3-person squad was attached to a 2nd Brigade support battalion in Mosul. I want to say we got there in May but my memories are patchy so it could have been late April. I do remember we were in this weird limbo status between our assigned location with the support battalion and our attachment to Bravo Company which was located elsewhere in the city.**

We had established our “home” in one of the many courtyard complexes scattered throughout the partially blown-up Iraqi military compound. It was a low U-shaped building with 2 or 3 individual rooms (with entrances facing the interior courtyard) on each of the three sides. All the windows were shattered, some of the shards still jutting out from the frames, the rest of the glass was in piles inside and outside the building. A theater (or what I assumed was a theater) across the street offered a possible explanation for the broken windows; the blackened front entrance, debris scattered outward, and more damage visible at the top of the structure indicated a recent explosion or fire (my guess was it got blown the fuck up – sort of, since it was still standing). At our courtyard building all the doors were also missing, but here they were ripped off their hinges, and the rooms on the opposite side of the courtyard were littered with spent munitions casings and rocket tubes, some possibly Russian (Soviet era?) We left those rooms undisturbed after we heard that some of the rounds might still be live but unstable and, more alarming, potentially depleted uranium rounds.


That’s shit burning in the background. Some of it is mine.

The engineers dug a huge pit in the middle of the courtyard so we could burn our garbage, and over the next 8 months we worked with the local Iraqis to make additional improvements to our site. After a few months we scored 2 gravity-fed flushing toilets to replace the seat-less chair and plastic bag system we were using before (we no longer had to burn our shit in an oil drum! Very awesome).

We also got a gravity-fed shower to go with the toilets, and it was the most amazing day ever.*** I’m pretty sure I got some 1.5 degree burns from attempting showers in the late summer afternoons after the sun had been heating the water in the tank to near boiling temperatures – morning time was better, not so risky. We also had the broken windows replaced by a local glazier and he used weird squishy caulk that never stopped being squishy (if those windows are still there, my thumbnail marks in the squishy window caulk are probably still there too, unless they’ve been squished and replaced by the thumbnail marks of other morose soldiers over the last ten years), And finally, we worked with a local electrician to have a power outlet installed so we could bring our equipment inside rather than keeping our vehicle constantly running.

So it wasn’t awful (by shitty-Iraq standards) – we were pretty lucky with our set-up. There were still soldiers living outside with no toilets – not even seat-less chairs, and there were others living in crowded tents with no access to their own awesome ice-man.

But overall, it still really sucked. There were still explosions from mortars and IEDs, still people getting shot, still people shooting at us, still stupid Army politics and bullshit sexism, groping, and fear of getting raped by our own people. In short, we were still in a combat zone and we still weren’t entirely sure when we would get to go home. During that pretty abysmal and lonely holiday season (by most non-shitty-Iraq standards), I received a letter from a wonderful woman who wanted to sponsor me for Christmas. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I was shocked at how amazing it made me feel to read kind words from this stranger and know that she and her family were using their time and money to do something special for someone they didn’t even know. I was surprised when I felt tears well up in my eyes; I hadn’t even realized how much I needed this beautiful and generous gift.

They sent me cards and photos. Her kids drew little pictures for me and they sent a stocking stuffed with amazing things like candy and lotion and fun little Christmas toys. I felt connected to home through them. I hung the stocking over my M-249 rifle on the dirty, pitted wall next to my Kevlar helmet and vest.

On Christmas day I woke up feeling sort of empty and flat. I opened my packages in the morning and we had turkey for lunch at the chow hall. Later that evening I re-read all my cards and letters, and maybe it was because I didn’t know this family so I couldn’t miss them but when I read their letters, the yearning to be home wasn’t a sharp stabbing pain, it was more of a dull ache, and I felt included and recognized and valued without the overwhelming wave of sorrow that seemed to always accompany letters from my family.

I heard a story on NPR the other day about melancholy Christmas songs and it made so much sense. Many of the mournful tunes like “I’ll be home for Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” were written during WWII, when war was all encompassing and it was probably pretty difficult to be festive when you missed your loved ones.  Although it was written later, “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas always evokes for me that same feeling of thankfulness and acceptance, lined with the homesickness and sadness that I experienced in Iraq.


* The ice-man’s name was Mahmoud, and he started out bringing us huge blocks of ice in the summer but soon he was procuring all sorts of stuff for us, including the mattresses and delicious homemade baba ghanoush.

** Additionally, because our platoon was actually part of Delta Company back in Fort Campbell, KY, the leadership at Bravo Company weren’t exactly throwing their arms open to welcome us. So when we were at the support battalion location we were on our own, isolated organizationally from the rest of the soldiers around us, and when we were at B Co headquarters there was a strong feeling that we didn’t belong there either.

*** Before the most amazing day ever, we were fortunate to have a field shower maintained by the support battalion. The field shower, set up shortly after we arrived in Mosul, was a vast improvement over our previous “facilities” (someone else holding up a poncho while you dump water over your head from a plastic water bottle) but as the weather warmed, venturing into the steamy, jungle-like atmosphere of the dark green shower tent became an effort in futility. I’m pretty sure I was sweating while I was taking a shower, and it continued as I attempted to towel off, resulting in a sweat-drenched Stephanie stumbling out of the dark oppressive heat of the tent into the blinding oppressive heat of the day, Was I cleaner? Yes. Did I feel clean? Meh.

Being an Atheist at Christmas

“Merry CHRISTMAS,” I am greeted by my coworker with a very emphatic Christmas greeting when I walk into my office.

“Um, Merry Christmas to you as well. Why the militant Christmas greeting this morning?”

“I’m just so TIRED of getting all these “Happy Holidays” cards. It’s CHRISTMAS. That’s what we’re celebrating, right?”

“That’s what you’re celebrating.” I shot back with a wink, letting him know I was being intentionally obnoxious, and not just my regular humorless* godless self.

“Yeah, yeah- I know other people are celebrating other holidays.” He sounds the tiniest bit apologetic.

*My coworkers are sort of assholes when it comes to their religious beliefs. I rarely talk about my (lack of) beliefs because these guys are pretty PRO GOD. I said “Holiday Party” when referring to our department’s annual “Holiday Party” last year (because that’s what it’s called) and the old man almost lost his shit. IT’S CHRISTMAS! CHRISTMAS, GODDAMMIT!” And then he called me a heathen and a pagan (I know, I didn’t even bother) for months until I told him I was going to go to HR if he didn’t knock it off.

“There isn’t really a war on Christmas, you know,” I’m totally being more obnoxious than necessary. My coworker watches Fox news and occasionally we talk about how ridiculous some of their stories are, but for the most part he seems to find their coverage “fair and balanced.”

“I KNOW there isn’t a war on Christmas!” Now he sounds defensive. (Muhahaha, JUSTICE)

I pour my coffee and sit down at my desk. “Chill out dude. We “celebrate” Christmas at our house and we aren’t even Christian.”

And we do celebrate the holiday. We have a tree. We do gifts and cards and Christmas lunch. Pretty much the whole shebang without the Jesus part.

However, growing up Catholic, Jesus was a central figure in my childhood Christmas celebrations. Pageants and Advent and midnight Mass were all annual traditions that put Jesus front and center, not just on Christmas morning but also for weeks before and after the holiday.

My move away from the church began when I opted out of confirmation at the age of 16, and I stopped going to Mass altogether when I joined the Army at the age of 17. After I came home from Iraq, I wasn’t quite an atheist, but I certainly wasn’t Catholic anymore. My “nuclear” family is very secular: My husband identifies as an atheist, and while I don’t typically define my lack of religious beliefs as atheism, for simplicity I’ve done so here.

Sometimes I feel a deep nostalgia for the parts we leave out of our Christmas celebrations now, and I miss the traditions that made the holiday meaningful to me as a child. The advent wreath that used to take up residence on our dining room table four weeks prior marked the beginning of my restless and impatient anticipation of Christmas morning. During the four weeks preceding the 25th we would light a candle marking each week. The first week, we lit just a single purple candle, the second week, two purple candles, the third, three candles (one pink and two purple), and the last Sunday before Christmas we would light all four. On Christmas day we would light a snow white candle placed in the center of the wreath.


Around the same time we put out the advent wreath my mom would always set up her nativity scene, sans baby Jesus and the three kings- those figures would make their appearance on Christmas morning. Infant Jesus would appear in his manger, his little plastic hands and feet so tiny and perfect; the three kings would turn up near the kitchen, the starting point of their 12-day journey across the living room. The star on top of our tree was the star they followed to see the newborn king. I would wake up and make sure the little plastic baby was in his place, sometimes before I even looked under the tree. Baby Jesus in his little manger and the glow from all five candles on the wreath made it feel real.

Now I wake up on Christmas morning and feel like I’m just going through the motions. I’m happy to be with my family but there are some gaps; the way I celebrated as a child felt like it had purpose and meaning. Now that I no longer believe the story behind the traditions, the day rings a little hollow. But as much as I miss my childhood traditions, repeating them now would feel dishonest. Much of my melancholy stems from knowing I can never be in that place again, that place of pure belief and faith that everything is as it should be and that all the stories you are told are true.

My boys are 7 and 8 years old this year. We have our own traditions, and maybe it feels just as real to them as it did to me when I was their age because this is what they know. What I know is that they’ll find religion (or not) on their own terms and repeat (or not) the traditions of their childhood because they want to, not because those traditions are all wrapped up in religious dogma,

I’m not slamming the dogma- I get it. My love of the traditions of the Church and my identity as an Irish Catholic operated as a security blanket and insulated me against my own unspoken doubts for a very long time. I felt that my identity as a Catholic was inexorably wrapped up in who I was as a person and it wasn’t until I spent a year in Iraq, in some very extreme and isolated conditions away from the warmth of religious tradition and repetition, that I felt brave enough to face those questions and doubts.

I don’t talk to many people about why they are atheist or agnostic, (or why they used to be Christian but chose to leave their church) but I imagine it wasn’t a decision made lightly. And it probably wasn’t because 45 people said “Happy Holidays” to them instead of “Merry Christmas.”