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Sunday, December 19

Chaplain, others look to lift Christmas spirit in war zone

By Gordon Trowbridge | Marine Corps Times

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - The young man was dying, and words failed Father Ron Camarda.

The Roman Catholic chaplain had been brought to the bedside of a soldier wounded in the streets of Fallujah - a young man clinging to life, his body ravaged by giant chunks of metal.

``I knew,'' Camarda said, ``that I needed to tell him that I loved him.'' But even in such extreme circumstances, the Naval Reserve lieutenant commander hesitated to speak, unsure what to say.

And so, on a bad day in November, Camarda thought of Christmas, and softly began to sing:

``Oh holy night,

``The stars are brightly shining.

``It is the night of the dear Savior's birth.

``Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

``Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.''

``And he peacefully passed away,'' Camarda said, his voice cracking with emotion.

``In a place like this,'' he said, ``we have to make every day Christmas.''

Across Iraq, military chaplains will enter makeshift chapels on the morning of Dec. 25 and pray for peace on earth in a land where peace continues to be in short supply.

For some of the men and women they will minister to, Christmas is a touchstone, a reminder of better things to come. For others, it's an unwelcome reminder of family and friends far away or simply another day of difficult, dangerous work.

``It's just another day. ... I don't even feel the spirit,'' said Marine Cpl. Charles Lambert.

Lambert has missed Christmas celebrations at home all four years he has been in the Corps, either because he was working as a military policeman at Camp Lejeune, N.C., or he was in Iraq. The 23-year-old will try to get his fill of Christmas spirit with a holiday call to his young wife, a student at the University of North Carolina.

``I used to try to go home, see all the Christmas lights. That was the sign that Christmas was coming,'' said Lambert, of Morgantown, N.C.

Such signs are few here, and even then, often reflect the war zone as much as the holiday. One group of Marines built a Christmas tree of camouflage netting, while in the Marine Expeditionary Force public affairs office, a miniature tree decorates a counter alongside the twisted remains of an artillery rocket that landed a few yards from the office in October.

But being Marines, the troops here are adapting - even to the fact that families are thousands of miles away.

``Your platoon becomes your family,'' said Pfc. Francesca Langston, 23, of Orlando, Fla. ``All you've really got out here is who you're with.''

Others try to take advantage of their unusual surroundings.

``My kids are excited; I've sent them a whole lot of presents from that gift shop,'' said Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Gregory Serdynski, pointing to an on-base shop offering Iraqi-themed paintings, rugs and trinkets.

Serdynski, 24, of Gulfport, Miss., and a colleague, Marine Lance Cpl. Ian Wilson, 23, of Batesville, Ark., helped build the camouflage tree in the combat engineers' shop. But sometimes, their co-workers would rather not have it there.

``I'll walk in, look at my watch and say, `Only nine more days till Christmas,'' Serdynski said.

``And they'll say, `Doc, don't remind us.' ''

Serdynski, though, thinks everyone here needs a little reminder.

``Hopefully what we're doing over here can make for a lot better Christmases back home.''