How I spent my cold winter holidays in Iraq

By Matt Lawson

I could really go for some Dos Reales right now. Actually, I could even go for some Taco Bell right now. I could go for the stuff that Taco Bell throws in the dumpster at the end of the day. I could eat about anything, except for the turkey cutlet that will be served at the chow hall tonight, just like it was at the chow hall last night and the night before. On day 151 of deployment I feel like I would flee to Canada if they promised I would never have to eat a turkey cutlet again. But that’s how it goes.

The holidays passed fairly uneventfully in my unit. As is customary in the Army, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day officers took over enlisted duties. For Cpt. Mike Armstrong and I, that meant we were tower guards for 12 hours on Christmas Eve. Tower Guard is pretty simple. You basically sit in a tower to make sure that no one attempts to breach the perimeter of our base. At other bases it can be eventful, but at our base it’s a relatively boring duty.

Mike and I valiantly defended our tower from … well no one really, except for a couple of goats that came a little close. Otherwise, it was 12 hours of trying to stay warm during the cold Iraqi night. Cold is a relative term of course. The nights here in winter tend to get just below freezing, but when your body is adapted to 130 degree days a few months ago, it feels extra cold. But we survived, and warmed up just in time to do the same thing on New Years Day.

And then the rains came. The winter is the rainy season in Iraq, and I hate it. I hated it in 2003 and I hate it now. When it rains here it’s always about 40 degrees and rains all day. This would be fine, except it creates mud. I’m talking up to your knees mud. And then it rains again. When that happens, it creates scenic brown lakes all across the base. In the worst example, some of our living quarters flooded with water about 2 feet deep. Hopefully though, the worst of it is over.

The holidays also mean USO tours to Iraq. As a helicopter unit, we get charged with flying a lot of the people who come to Iraq, including senators, governors, Carrie Underwood, Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and of course, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The celebrities all do different things; Bill O’Reilly signed autographs for a line that had about a 2-hour wait, while Carrie Underwood performed in concert in an old Saddam-era Iraqi Air Force movie theater.

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And of course, Saddam is no longer with us in the land of Iraq, although it will take many years to erase the shadow that he cast over this country. It can be tempting to feel sympathy for the man when you watch a video of him as he awaits the noose, but I am always reminded of the stories locals would tell when I first arrived in ’03. The rapes, the murders and the family members who disappeared in the middle of the night were not just stories to these Iraqis like they are to you and me; these were the real life events that will be part of their memories as long as they live. I can’t condone the taunting of the man as he got ready to die, but I can understand the anger that caused it.

Now that we’re nearing the middle of our tour, soldiers are also getting to go home on R&R; leave. It’s 15 days in the States and from everybody I talk to, it’s hard to come back to Iraq. However, it does give me another milestone to shoot for in the future.

155 down, 207 to go.