Originally published Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004

MOSUL, Iraq — They have been here before.

Eight months ago, members of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion wandered around Forward Operating Base Marez in a collective daze, stunned by the news that one of their own had been killed by a roadside bomb just two months into their yearlong deployment.

His name was Spc. Christopher Gelineau, just 23, newly married and with a whole lifetime waiting on the other side of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Now, there are two more. And this time, with 15 soldiers dead from a blast that turned Tuesday’s lunch hour at the base’s dining facility into the worst kind of nightmare, the 133rd will not grieve alone.

“It’s different than last time, ” a pensive Maj. Dwayne Drummond, the battalion’s executive officer, said late Tuesday evening, after the attack that left 22 dead, including two of his soldiers. Twelve of the 66 wounded wore the Pine Tree patch on the shoulders of their desert camouflage fatigues.

Different? In what way?

“Well, last time it was just us, ” Drummond replied. “We were the sole victim, so everyone was focused on taking care of the 133rd. Now, every unit (at Marez) is feeling the brunt of this.”

And they’re feeling it at the worst possible time of the year.

For days all over this barren base, red ribbons, artificial Christmas trees and cutouts of smiling Santas have sprouted like tiny oases among the dust-covered Humvees and drab concrete bomb shelters.

Bright-green schedules for Christmas Eve services at the Olive Garden Chapel – carol singing, followed by Mass – beckon from every available bulletin board.

Presents from home sit under the trees or deep inside foot lockers, awaiting that bittersweet moment on Saturday morning when a pull of the ribbon and a tug of the wrapping paper was supposed to provide a momentary ticket home.

Now, as soldiers wait anxiously for the Internet servers to go back up so they can assure loved ones they’re sound, if not safe, Christmas looms more as a hurdle than a holiday.

With one cruel blow, the insurgents who prowl outside the perimeter of this godforsaken place hijacked a rare chance for true celebration and set it on a collision course with yet another round of tearful eulogies, another set of gut-wrenching final roll calls.

Yes, there will be Christmas here – just as there was Easter despite the mortars that rained down on Marez that terrifying Sunday last April, miraculously inflicting only one or two minor injuries.

There will be Christmas because, truth be told, these soldiers long ago learned to comfort one another with laughter, with a sub-freezing game of badminton or, when all else fails, a supportive arm across a slumping shoulder.

But there will also be at least one memorial service, maybe more. There will be anger, to be sure. There will be the nagging sense that the 133rd’s trip home to Maine, expected sometime in March, just got yanked a little further away.

No one could say Tuesday how many soldiers will turn out two nights from now to join voices in “Joy to the World” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” or that ode to irony in these parts, “Silent Night.” Nor does anyone know whether the pre-Mass poker game, planned days ago, will even fill a table.

But as someone who’s watched more than once now as these stalwart Mainers face their grief without losing sight of their mission, my bet is there will be poker and carols and, above all, prayers.

Some will be for those who left for midday chow Tuesday with no idea they were sitting down to a full-blown tragedy.

Some will be for peace, now more than ever, in this place where long ago civilization was born.

And some will be that this base, this hell on Earth, will soon loosen its grip on these proud but weary Mainers.

Sunday afternoon, two days before he went to lunch and emerged dazed, disoriented but otherwise uninjured, Chaplain David Sivret welcomed a visitor to his decked-out chapel, poured from his ever-present pot of hot coffee and said the words that will pull the 133rd through this tangle of tinsel and torture.

“It’s time, ” Sivret said with a weary smile. “It’s time for all of us to come home.”

Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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