Christmas in Iraq

It's 0-600 (military time) and I'm awakened to the sound of 36 sailors, mumbling and grumbling the early morning sleep off of their faces. The cot I sleep on was relatively comfortable last night, or maybe I'm just getting used to it. I can hear the boots of the men as they slide across the dust-covered plywood, the gritty sound signaling the obvious sleepiness still on the men's feet. We live in one of dozens of dirty-white canvas tents lined up in a cookie-cutter fashion, each one with its own set of tears and patches, whether from the elements or the shrapnel of incoming mortars. It's been my home for months now, but it definitely does not have that "homey" feeling. I don't know if it's the sand in my mouth, or the heat that accompanies it running down my throat, that tells me today is not going to be a great day.

I almost forget it's Christmas, a hastily put together makeshift tree the only indication of this yuletide extravaganza.

Once done changing into my desert camouflage uniform, cover, flak jacket (think bullet-proof vest, without all that needless bullet proofing), gas mask, and "ammo" pouches, and, of course, my standard issue M-16 automatic assault rifle, I step outside my habitat. Another glorious sun welcomes me with the instant sweat only Iraq can elicit. The sounds of this F.O.B. (Forward Operating Base for you civilians) are common to my ears. Military machinery of all manners hum and roll through the "roads" (more like sandy trails). Men and women's voices are buzzing about; the irony that we are called "Seabees" is not lost on me.

I make my way to the chow hall, walk in, grab a tray and get some breakfast; not bad today: eggs, bacon, grits and a biscuit, milk and some OJ. I eat fast and walk out to my work station, a short 6-minute walk.

The sand here isn't sand at all, but more finite, like a dust-covered nightmare you wouldn't wish upon the best of vacuums. I'm a BU (builder), so I begin where I left off the day before. We are currently building a fortified, mortar-proof office for the general of the base. I'm working on the roof; nailing it together with a hammer that is barely holding itself together. The work is monotonous and repetitive. This goes on for hours, hammering and nailing, measuring and cutting. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for all this work since it's not meant to last for long periods of time. But we do it, because that's the job, and we volunteered for it.

Lunch comes and goes, with no details to speak of. I've come to find that the days here tend to blur into continuous blocks of the same things, over and over again, the boring and the bad, equally. I have friends here, too many to single out, more of a brotherhood or kinship. There is an unspoken truth that, if necessary, we will lay down our lives for one another. One sailor, Petty Officer 3rd Class John Knott, has already given this sacrifice. It's such an understood condition that we almost don't even recognize it on a day-to-day basis, almost.

I finish my work day at about twenty-hundred hours (8 p.m.) and it's still over 100 degrees. I walk to the "phone center", a crude tent with about a dozen phones inside. Before I get there, I stop by the vendor's tent, run by an Iraqi national, or "Haji"; as we call them. He's a barber, and sells a variety of items as well. I rifle thru the DVD's and other trinkets, such as cologne and knives. Nothing I need or want. I feel my hair and decide to make an appointment to get my hair cut. I'm told it would be about an hour and realize I have time to make my phone call.

I begin to walk towards the phone tent, about 50 meters away, when I hear it. The-oh so-faint whistling, familiar to my ears. As it gets louder and louder, I begin my sprint. It's a rocket propelled grenade, and it's headed right for me.

The closest bunker is about 10 meters past the phone tent. Though this is all happening in slow motion, not three seconds have passed when the rocket hits. The phone center explodes before my eyes; the screams are immediate and deafening. I get to it in another three seconds, and before I know it, my hands are around the neck of a Marine. The smell of burning flesh finally hits my nostrils, and I'm covered in blood. "Why so much?" I think to myself.

It's been 20 seconds since first impact; two more rounds have hit, somewhere in the camp. Medics are already on the scene, and they remove me to a bunker. It's all mechanical. I don't really remember all of the details. I find myself waiting in a bunker with others for about 20 minutes, my hands cleaned by canteen water and rags.

After we receive the "green light," signaling it's safe to go about our business, I find a corpsman (medic), and ask about the fallen Marine. "All I know is, he's on his way to Germany," he says. That's where they take serious injuries. I thank him and head back to my tent. We discuss what occurred amongst ourselves, and the tension fades. I finally realize, again, that it's Christmas, and over the course of the night, we "celebrate" as well we can.

This is my life, for now. All I can do is live within it. Tomorrow is my birthday, I hope it's better than today.

All these memories are passing through my mind. My eyes open, it's years later, and I'm lying in my bed, thousands of miles from danger. Almost every night, it seems, I recall the events of those days. It's an effect of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was so desensitized for all those months, but it's finally caught up with me. I'm no longer the machine I used to be; I'm just a man again, yet not a man, at all. I'll live with this for the rest of my life, a sacrifice, a responsibility, I chose to bear.

In the end, I just hope it was all worth it.

Alex Rojo Jr. is a 33-year-old Downey resident who recently returned from Iraq after three tours of duty overseas. He wrote this true story as a class assignment at Cerritos College and allowed it to be shared with The Downey Patriot.