Marines Spend Christmas Away From Home

This Christmas, there are roughly 175,000 U.S. troops serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Renee Montagne talks with Marines at Al Asad Air Base in the western Iraqi province of Al Anbar to see how they are spending Christmas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition. From NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne. And America is once again celebrating a Christmas morning with tens of thousands of troops at war. Roughly 175,000 are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a moment, we'll go to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad, a city more peaceful on this day then it's been in years.

We begin with two Marines in Al Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, to see how they're spending Christmas. You may recognize Anbar as the scene of some of the most deadly battles of the war, in places like Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditha. We begin with Staff Sergeant Sara McTigue(ph), and you're on the line with us.

Staff Sergeant SARA MCTIGUE (U.S. Marine): Hello, and Merry Christmas to you.

MONTAGNE: Merry Christmas to you. Now, I gather that your hometown is Sandy, Oregon?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: Yes, ma'am, that is correct.

MONTAGNE: And this is your second tour in Iraq. Is this your second Christmas there, or were you there at another time?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: This is my first Christmas here, ma'am. My first time was in Al Taqaddum, from February 2004 to September of 2004.

MONTAGNE: How would you describe the security situation there at Anbar now, compared to when you were in Iraq last?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: I would have to say that the security, compared to what it was in 2004, has increased significantly. The Iraqi people are really stepping up to take over their country and be able to secure it so that they have total control of it.

MONTAGNE: What is - well, Christmas, but what does it feel like now to you?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: It's very peaceful here, compared to what it was. Marines are enjoying a day of working out, having a holiday meal at the chow hall, and spending time with their other family, the Marine Corps family.

MONTAGNE: What was the Christmas meal today?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: It's going to be some turkey and some stuffing and mashed potatoes, hopefully some pumpkin pie with some ice cream, that would be lovely today.

MONTAGNE: Have you decorated up to make it feel like Christmas?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: Yes, ma'am. We had a Christmas tree in our office, we had a door decoration contest with my unit, and we had a Christmas party yesterday, as well as a barbecue.

MONTAGNE: Have you had a chance to call home today?

MCTIGUE: Yes, ma'am. I did get a chance to call this morning to speak to my family.

MONTAGNE: I guess they'd rather you'd be with them.

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: Of course, I would much rather be with them spending time with my brother and sisters and my mom and dad.

MONTAGNE: You said your other family, the Marines. Does that make you feel like you're in a fine enough place on this Christmas?

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: Being away from my immediate family is always a thing that we miss, but being with my Marine Corps family, knowing that we're here enjoying Christmas in a different way that not many Americans get to enjoy, allows me to cherish Christmas, and what we're actually doing over here, a whole lot more then if I was actually back in States.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, of course that is very much appreciated. And everyone wishes you a Merry Christmas.

Staff Sergeant MCTIGUE: You're welcome. Have a Merry Christmas.

MONTAGNE: Would you mind passing the phone onto - let's see, who we've got there? I believe Sergeant Jose Morales(ph)?

Sergeant JOSE MORALES (U.S. Marine): Yes, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: Have you been in Iraq before?

Sergeant MORALES: Yes, ma'am. I was here in '04, '05.

MONTAGNE: So you would have seen it at - in a way, at its most violent?

Sergeant MORALES: Yes, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: How does this Christmas compare to that time?

Sergeant MORALES: My first Christmas out here was in '04, and it's completely different. You know, we were getting incoming all the time in our face. Triangle of Death, that's what they called it back then. It was an area that was known as the most violent back then.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. So, it must have been pretty tough duty?

Sergeant MORALES: Yes, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: What was your job?

Sergeant MORALES: I was the flow-block(ph) NCO. It's pretty much like the auto zone for the Marine Corp. I would have all the bad parts on my base, and I would have to, you know, come up to Fallujah and exchange those out for good parts and go back to my base. So, I was in a convoy like every other day.

MONTAGNE: Did you lose friends?

Sergeant MORALES: On that deployment, I believe the number was 15 Marines that we lost. And that was throughout our whole unit.

MONTAGNE: Right.

Sergeant MORALES: And from this deployment, I've been here 12 months and we only had one incident in Fallujah, and that was months ago. It's completely different.

MONTAGNE: Then, does this Christmas in Anbar feel almost peaceful?

Sergeant MORALES: Yes, ma'am. I would totally agree with that statement.

MONTAGNE: Well, a Merry Christmas to you, Sergeant Jose Morales. And thank you for talking with us.

Sergeant MORALES: No problem.

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