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12-27-06, 10:23 AM #1
Michigan's Band of Brothers: A Christmas in the war zone
Michigan's Band of Brothers: A Christmas in the war zone
BY JOE SWICKARD, Det. Free Press
Updated: 12/27/2006 4:05:02 AM
Rocket attacks, raid punctuate a bizarre and blessed holiday
FALLUJAH, Iraq - Christmas morning came to Alpha Company with raids, a chorus of howling dogs, rocket attacks, a truckload of detainees and three controlled explosions.
It also came with dancing Santas, and personalized stockings and handcrafted ornaments arrayed under a Christmas tree strung with a belt of machine-gun ammo and adorned with candy canes.
Christmas was a blend of the blessed, bizarre and heartfelt for the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marine Regiment.
For weeks, the 1/24 - the largest deployment of Michigan Marines during the Persian Gulf conflicts - had stoutly insisted that Christmas would be just another day at best, or at worse, an aching reminder of home.
But the people of Michigan had none of that, and the Marines themselves expended enormous energy on decorations and glee for a group of supposedly grumpy guys.
Families, school groups, veterans organizations and church committees trooped to the post office to show their affection and concern for the more than 1,000 men of the 1/24.
Since last month, huge truckloads of mail have nearly buried the men of the battalion's Headquarters, Weapons, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies with an embarrassment of riches.
There were piles of presents, mountains of cookies, landslides of sweets, cascades of cards and enough grooming and hygiene goods to shame Vidal Sassoon.
Alpha Company's 1st Sgt. Kenneth Baum - a blacksmith and bridge builder from Silver Lake who is so powerful he once knocked out a horse - let loose his inner Martha Stewart, overseeing his men as they festooned the headquarters.
"It's good to have the holiday spirit," Baum, 42, said.
Despite the tinseled stairways and chandelier, Baum kept his leatherneck perspective, choosing the ammo belt for the tree and posing in a Santa cap with a bayonet and a rifle. Mindful that good taste is always understated, Baum drew the line at putting hand grenades on the tree.
"I'm going to need a fire team to find my present," said Gunnery Sgt. Brian Ivers of Colorado, eying the spread of personalized ornaments made by a family support group.
Truckloads of new bunk beds and mattresses were another holiday surprise for Alpha.
The holiday really began Saturday for the Marines when chaplain Chris Martin left Camp Baharia for his rounds of outposts in and around Fallujah.
Moving with eight armored vehicles instead of tiny reindeer, Martin, 37 of Ohio, reached Alpha Company's base on a peninsula in the Euphrates River across from Fallujah on Sunday morning to celebrate the holiday with gospel readings and carols.
"A blessing back home and to the Marines to the right and left of us," he prayed and then armored up in his convoy and moved on, hoping to be back at Baharia on Christmas.
But there is a war on and by afternoon a detachment was lobbing shells at a target in a distant palm grove.
A raid and a suspicious device
Bedtime on Christmas Eve came early for Alpha, but not to hasten Santa's visit.
Two operations were set to roll by 3 a.m. - one aimed at a walled riverfront estate set among orange groves near Alpha's base and another at a compound of homes a 10-minute convoy ride in the other direction.
Under a sliver of moon and a choir of baying dogs, the first raiding party fixed a chain to a Humvee and wrapped it around a steel gate. The Humvee gunned and roared backward. The gate flew open and the party swept into the estate.
Three hours later the Marines, their breath steaming in the morning chill, hiked back into base without finding any weapons or anyone in the estate's grand homes. The dawn prayer call from the mosques accompanied them home.
Even as the raiders were filling out their reports, a guard-post radioed of incoming rockets. The rockets landed harmlessly.
The motorized patrol soon rolled into base with more than a dozen men taken in the raids, including several men on a most-wanted list.
There was little time for relaxation: A suspected roadside bomb was found along a nearby highway.
In midmorning, an explosives-clearing team set three charges to clear the suspicious device and three columns of dirty gray smoke smudged in the clear Christmas sky.
Piles of presents
Cpl. Matthew Zofchak of Flint said the Christmas gifts started arriving in November. Now the hooch is awash in presents and gizmos like dancing Santas and a fur-ball creature that laughs and gyrates when slammed to the floor.
"Yeah, we joke around with Santa hats and this weird stuff, but it ends up being just another day," Zofchak, 26, said.
"I guess I could sit and dwell on it, but I have 10 other guys depending on me," he said.
Then he introduced his buddies: Lance Cpl. Andrew Music, 24, of Chicago; Cpl. Jason Meade, 24, of Grand Rapids and Lance Cpl. Andrew Johnson, 24, of Flint.
"We're the Fab Five," Zofchak said. "We came out here for each other."
And the fifth?
"Sgt. Thomas Gilbert," he said, pointing to a portrait photo of a grinning young Marine from the Chicago area in his dress blues.
"We lost him Oct. 25," he said.
Gilbert wanted to be a Chicago firefighter, said Music.
"This thing is so frustrating; you don't get to see the end result," he said. "That's why I liked working construction with Tommy. You could see results."
"It's tough and frustrating here," Music said. "But, that's war, I guess."
Contact JOE SWICKARD at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web Editor: John Bumgardner, Assignment Desk
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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