By Army Sgt. Jason Dangel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 22, 2008 - For the first time in 26 years, Army Capt. Michael Beissinger won't be home for Christmas. The Apache attack helicopter platoon leader, along with 32 other members of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade's "Peacemakers" Company, will spend their holiday season at this large coalition forces base about 15 miles north of Baghdad and more than 3,500 miles away from the Eastern Seaboard.
For the majority of Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers assigned to the 4th Infantry Division's Company A, 4th Battalion, 4th CAB, this isn't the first time they have celebrated Christmas in Iraq; but in Beissinger's eyes, Christmas is a special time for everyone, no matter where they are in the world.
"Christmas means something different to everybody, and whether it's family-related or not, it brings up a lot of emotions and feelings for different people," he said from his chair in the company's command post, next to the camp's airfield, where he parks his $24 million attack helicopter.
"For a lot of our soldiers," he said, "this is their second or third time over here. But for myself and a lot of other guys, it's our first time being away during the holidays, and I wanted to make something happen to help lift their spirits." That's when parents got involved.
In a massive display of patriotic support, more than 60 families from the Winter Haven, Fla., area donated a myriad of Christmas gifts to Beissinger's company.
"My parents gathered a bunch of people together, and a lot of people from Florida knew I was here, and this is where all this support started," Beissinger said.
In the months leading up to the holiday season, the Apache helicopter pilot his troops call "Captain Beis" was contacted by his parents, Stephen and Chris Beissinger, about possibly organizing an effort to support his soldiers in Iraq. His parents formed a coalition of about 15 families who sent toiletries and decorations for Halloween.
"These 15 families got out there and started spreading the word about us," he said. "Word got out to different schools, to different churches, and basically all these people wanted to jump on the bandwagon and help support us. They wanted to do something for the next go-around."
The "next go-around" was Christmas, and unsure of how much support he could get, Beissinger again contacted his parents, who quickly put a plan into action.
"My parents put their heads together and went from there. They had a big meeting at my house in Florida with all the people that wanted to support us, and they had an overwhelming response. They had cars backed up all the way down the road."
Initially, each family wanted to donate gifts for each soldier, but the platoon leader said he did not want the families to have to limit their own Christmas celebrations. Soon after learning about his parents' success in gathering support for his company, Beissinger compiled a Christmas list from all of his soldiers. He asked them to list five items they wanted for Christmas. The item they wanted the most would be listed first, and the rest would be listed in order of importance.
In the end, Beissinger had formulated a 16-page Christmas "wish list," along with a group photo and individual pictures of each soldier with their names, ages and hometowns.
"All the soldiers were putting down, 'Hey, I want an iPod. Hey, I want this,'" he said. "But some guys said they wanted to donate to charities, and at that point, it went beyond receiving gifts. These guys wanted to give back to the community. It took on a different meaning when all this started happening." He cited Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Myrick, an Apache helicopter pilot from Victoria, Texas, as an example.
"He wrote down that he would like to donate to a women's shelter, and he would like to get some stuff for his kids," Beissinger said. "Every single thing he asked for, for his kids, the family went out and bought every single thing on the list and made sure it was fulfilled.
"He e-mailed me when he was home on leave and told me how much that meant to him," Beissinger continued. "His family was able to provide a nice Christmas for his kids, and it all stemmed from the support my parents gathered in Florida."
Army Sgt. Christopher Meno, a senior Apache crew chief from Guam who is on his third combat deployment, described the event as something he has never seen before -- and something he always will remember.
"This is by far the best Christmas I have had in Iraq," he said. "I know for the soldiers, this definitely lifted their spirits to know that somebody actually went out of their way to support them."
Meno received all five items on his wish list, including his No. 1 item: a guitar.
"In my opinion, it's just amazing to know that there are families willing to go that extra mile for our guys serving over here during the holidays." said Army Capt. Michael Shaw, the company's commander, a native of Fremont, Calif. "Now, did this have to be something financial such as gifts? No. All of these families took the time to try to get to know the soldier they were sponsoring just by looking at their pictures, and they gave their best effort to personalize each and every gift. The families looked at the pictures, looked at the soldier's list and then just went to town."
The Peacemakers' official Christmas celebration was held Dec. 15 in a small gravel-strewn area surrounded by concrete barriers, about 100 yards away from their small fleet of Apache helicopters. The celebration was held early because the company's leadership determined that mission requirements made it unlikely that they all could get together on Christmas Day.
"I don't even know who to thank anymore," Beissinger said. "We have stuff coming from all over Florida now. I have been getting stuff from Orlando, Lakeland, Bartow, Clearwater, Tampa. All these people are supporting us, and it all started in Winter Haven. It's just crazy. I just wanted to make sure that everybody had a happy holiday season.
"Small Town USA still loves us," he continued. "They still support us. This is evident by all the caring and generosity these families have shown to my guys. I'm glad these families are responding, because it really drives it home to these guys that there are people back home that care about us."
Even though all the "big" Christmas gifts have been unwrapped and stowed away, all of the soldiers surely will still be talking about the event as they complete their 12-hour workdays on Christmas Day, he added.
(Army Sgt. Jason Dangel serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade.)