Christmas finds I MEF in Kuwaiti sands

25 Dec 2002 | Cpl. Colin Wyers

While some people dream of a white Christmas, the Marines, sailors, and soldiers of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) spent a brown Christmas in the deserts of northern Kuwait.

Deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, these service members marked the holiday with a variety of activities, while their thoughts were on their loved ones back in the U.S.

Troops started off Christmas Eve with a three-mile formation run, led by I MEF Commanding General Lt. Gen. James T. Conway.  Following the run, Santa Claus, complete with suit, arrived with approximately 500 gift-wrapped packages for the junior service members waiting at the "Coliseum," an open-air amphitheater.  Santa, played by Maj. Mike Riddle, 37, from Oceanside, Calif., explained how a local family founded an organization called "Operation Christmas Basket," which has donated gifts to service members deployed to Kuwait since 1994.

"We thank you, from the bottoms of our hearts, for being here, for helping us, for protecting our children," said a letter from Sheila and Lionel Gittens, founders of Operation Christmas Basket.  "Though we know you are far from your families this season, please know that we welcome you with open arms into our family."

Conway also thanked the assembled service members at the gathering.

"You can't be with your family these holidays, so you do the next best thing," Conway told the troops.  "You're with your military family.  And you make this a special holiday period, and one that you'll always remember.  Because this one is going to be very, very different from ones you'll experience from now on.  The Christmas of 2002 in Kuwait is one that will be imprinted very deeply on your minds."

Afterwards, as night fell, carolers wandered the camp, at times under a light chilly rain, to bring holiday cheer to Marines still working in tents and those standing guard.  The day's celebration concluded with a candlelight religious service that lasted until the early hours of Christmas Day.

"Even though we're away from home," said I MEF chaplain Lt. j.g. Matthew Richardt, 33, from Holt, Mich,  "we still celebrate it (Christmas), perhaps with even more meaning.  With so many really missing family and loved ones, I think Christmas - of all days - is the most difficult to be away from the family.  Having a service, and remembering the Christmas story, helps with being so far from families."

The next day was a day off, with a Christmas meal being served to the Marines by senior enlisted and officers.  Afterward, it was back to work.

"You're doing something for your family," said Lance Cpl. James Turnow, 19, from Lanark, Ill.  "You know that everybody back home is safe because of you, even though you miss your family."