By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 23, 2008 - The holiday decorations are ever-present at the 926th Engineer Brigade headquarters at Camp Liberty, Iraq. Competitions are under way to determine who can fashion the most festive door, and holiday parties – without liquor, of course – remind everyone that the days are counting down to Christmas. The lineup for Dec. 25 includes an all-hands "Saper call," a "basketball brawl" similar to the one the brigade sponsored at Thanksgiving, and football games playing back to back on the dining facility TVs.
But Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, the brigade commander, said the festivities can't overshadow the inevitable bottom line: "In the end," he said, "Christmas is another duty day."
"It's another duty day, and we can't let our guard down," Talley told American Forces Press Service from his headquarters in the Multinational Division Baghdad area of responsibility. "We will try to accommodate and allow as many soldiers as possible to have a lower [operating tempo] that day than on a typical day, but in the end, it is still a duty day. We have to do our duty, because that is why we are here."
Army Sgt. Randy Witzel, operations noncommissioned officer for Talley's Task Force Iron Gimlet, could get the holiday blues if he let himself. This Christmas, his second in Iraq, will be his first as a married man. Witzel married his wife, Lynne, last New Year's Eve, just two months before deploying to Iraq.
This year, they'll spend their first Christmas as a married couple and their first wedding anniversary more than 8,000 miles apart.
"A phone call, a Christmas card and Internet messages is about the best way to deal with it," said Witzel, an Army Reservist like Talley and many of his fellow soldiers. "The way you have to look at it is: it's just another day. If you try not to think about it, that's the best way to get through it."
At their home in Pensacola, Fla., Lynne Witzel was busy doing last-minute gift shopping, and had decorated the house to make the holiday special for her 15- and 6-year-old children. She expected to spend her anniversary with the same friends who attended her wedding. This year, however, the groom will be far away, not scheduled to return until early spring.
"I hope he can call," she said.
Contemplating the holiday ahead, her husband tried not to think about the holiday backyard barbecue he'd be missing. He took consolation in the special meals Camp Liberty's dining facility will serve and the "little more laid-back day" he and his fellow soldiers hope for.
If there's a reward for spending Christmas in Iraq -- or for being deployed at all -- Witzel said, it's knowing the impact he and his soldiers have had on the Iraq people's lives. Their engineering projects have helped restore essential services such as water and electricity, removed debris and waste from the streets and rebuilt schools.
In doing so, they've helped build confidence in the Iraqi government and brought violence to record lows.
Sadr City, which Talley calls one of his brigade's biggest success stories, transformed from a "very vicious, dangerous combat zone" to a thriving city with bustling markets and children playing in the parks.
"It is just phenomenal, and whether you are an American, a Westerner or an Iraqi, most people can't believe it," he said. "They just shake their heads in disbelief at the positive changes that have occurred.
"We've brought peace and normalcy," Witzel said.
The most gratifying part, he said, is seeing the changes in the children he encounters. "It's all about the kids," he said. "That's the next generation that is going to grow up and make a difference in the world."