Soldiers in Afghanistan remember family

KABUL, Afghanistan – As the choir of Army soldiers sang a spirited “Frosty the Snowman” under a light snowfall Sunday evening, Lt. Cmdr. Lynne O’Neil bobbed in time and thought of her daughter, Anna.

“I know my 2 1/2-year-old daughter’s favorite song this year is ‘Frosty,'” O’Neil said. “My sister, who’s now the acting mother, told me today that when she plays that song in the car that Anna always says ‘again’ at the end.”

Nearby, Sgt. Maj. Rick Turner thought of his family’s own caroling traditions. When asked what he was thinking about, he turned quiet.

“Home. Thinking about my home and family. It’s my second Christmas away from home,” he said. After listening to the carols for 20 minutes, he went off to find a phone.

“This will be my Christmas call to them because things are starting to get busy,” said the 53-year-old from Goose Creek, S.C. “The (base’s) phone lines will get busy, so I’ll get mine out of the way today.”

As Christmas approaches, overseas military bases try to bring a bit of the holiday to soldiers far from home. Cafeterias are decorated with Christmas trees. Crayoned Christmas cards from school kids hang on walls. And base choirs, like the one organized by Chaplain Iris Dickerson, sing carols to passing soldiers after dinner.

As part of the Christmas celebration at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, soldiers will have four days of services, including a gospel service, a Catholic Mass and a non-denominational service.

“We create an environment here that lets soldiers know they are part of a family,” said Dickerson, 38, who has been a minister for five years at Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Chester, S.C. Like many at Camp Phoenix, Dickerson serves with her National Guard unit, the 218th Infantry Brigade based in Newberry, S.C.

“Other than being in a war zone, I want people to say ‘I was in Afghanistan but I still felt at home,’ especially at our services,'” Dickerson said.

Dickerson, the battalion’s chaplain, organized two caroling sessions. On Sunday, 10 service members joined her on a crisp night outside the camp’s cafeteria, where she led the group in holiday favorites like “Silent Night” and “Deck the Halls,” the group’s opening number.

The audience was thin at first, perhaps because of the wet snowfall. After “Deck the Halls” it let out a couple claps and a small cheer. At its peak, the crowd swelled to a dozen, many holding cups of coffee. Some shouted out the names of carols they wanted to hear. Nearby stood a 6-foot blowup Santa, glowing bright red.

Dickerson called out the next song: “Frosty! Frosty!”

The group, which hadn’t practiced, was slightly off key. But soldiers shouted words of encouragement as they walk by. Whistles and cheers went up at the conclusion of “Frosty.”

“Thank you!” Dickerson shouted back.

Though the group had planed on singing for 90 minutes, the night was so cold that they wrapped up after about 40. O’Neil, who is part of the Navy Postgraduate School, watched at least half the performance.

“I like the fact they’re putting in the effort to stand out here in the cold and try to bring us some Christmas spirit,” she said with a smile on her face. She was in a better mood than many of the other service members here.

“You have to make the best of every situation you’re in. My No. 1 concern about coming over here was my daughter. My daughter is doing wonderfully. She is perfectly safe,” said O’Neil, of Monterey, Calif. “My lot in life compared with the lot of most Afghans is very good, so I can’t complain.”

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