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IRAQ: It's Christmas and they're away from home, again

December 24, 2008 |  5:28 pm

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Throughout Iraq, U.S. military personnel were served special Christmas Eve meals and many gathered for church services.  Personnel more accustomed to barking orders did their best on traditional hymns and Christmas songs.

At a midnight Mass at the base at Al Asad, Catholic chaplain Paul Shaughnessy reminded the Marines and others that even H.G. Wells, who famously rejected Christianity for Darwinism and atheism, believed Christ was the greatest man in human history.

Wells admired Christ not out of faith but because of his message of brotherhood and peace, Shaughnessy told the 100-plus troops ranging from top officers to privates.

"I know for a lot of you, it's the second or third Christmas here in Iraq," Shaughnessy said during his homily. "It's probably appropriate [that] we're in the Holy Land, or close to it anyhow."

Shaughnessy, a Jesuit in his fourth tour in Iraq, had earlier gone to a combat outpost at Hit in the Euphrates River Valley to say Mass. He serves as chaplain for the Camp Pendleton-based Regimental Combat Team 5.

At sprawling Al Asad, Mass was celebrated in a chapel tucked in a corner of what is called Camp Ripper. Lt. Col. Robert McCarthy of East Bridgewater, Mass., called it appropriate that the Marines were gathered "within the walls of a special chapel built by warriors."

Capt. Brian O'Shea said that if he were home in Staten Island, he'd be attending midnight Mass with his family. "We do a dangerous job here," he said. "Christmas Mass will remind us what we all ultimately hope for: peace."

Thoughts of home were common among the troops. Christmas Eve was just another workday for many, as Christmas Day will be.

In Baghdad, Army Lt. Col. Sam Russell said he planned to call his wife and three children in Richmond Hill, Ga., just as he figures they'll be sitting down for Christmas dinner. Unless, of course, he's stuck waiting for a helicopter or otherwise busy.

Russell has been gone four of the last six Christmases, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. The toughest part, he said, is that his family has grown so accustomed to him being gone during the holiday season.

"Over the years, their reaction has become less [profound]," Russell said. "Now it's, 'He's going away again.' "

— Tony Perry in San Diego and Ned Parker in Baghdad

Photo: Father Paul Shaughnessy at midnight Mass at Al Asad. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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