Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday in Iraq: 2005

Every now and thenbut not too oftenI will look back at the journal I kept while I was deployed as an active-duty soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, I turn the page to Easter Sunday. On my browser screen are also news reports of the bombings in Sri Lanka, reminding us that violence and conflict never rest, even on the holiest of days...

March 27, 2005:  Easter Sunday. The day dawned pink, clear, and hot. No rolled away stones, no miraculous resurrections. The morning was mercifully quiet and free from the thud of mortar detonations. The only excitement came around noon when there was a grass fire over near the Baghdad International Airport and thick, black smoke rose in a violent churning plume. For a moment, it looked like it was headed our way.

As always, though, there was the threat of man-made, man-propelled violence and it was enough to keep us on our toes, our eyes darting back and forth, scanning our own sectors of fire. The day began with a sunrise worship service on the shores of the 30-acre artificial lake which Saddam had built so he’d have a place to relax while hunting on the palace grounds (our headquarters area used to be a game preserve). About 250 of us gathered around the chaplain to listen to the sermons and sing the hymns. I was there to take photos for a press release (which my boss later decided NOT to release because of “cultural sensitivities”). In between snapping the shutter, I joined in singing the chorus of “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today,” my memory juices stirring from all those Easter Sundays in my Dad’s church back in Wyoming.

Originally, we’d planned to film the service and broadcast it live back to the Department of Defense’s video hub in Atlanta so the local TV stations could air it (at 10:30 p.m. Saturday their time). Fortunately, my boss—in a good moment—nixed that idea. “You know,” he said yesterday, “the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a bad idea. It would be just my luck that ol’ Haji would get lucky that day and drop a mortar smack dab in the middle of the church service and blow up the chaplain on live television.”

Lunch at the dining facility was also something of a religious experience today. The whole place was decorated with cardboard chicks and three-foot eggs like you buy at Wal-mart. On the tables, the centerpieces were these odd, tacky foil trees—shimmering purple, green and yellow. It’s like the Iraqis wanted to make it nice and homey for us, but they just didn’t know how. A couple of specialists who work at the dining facility greeted us at the door, thrusting chocolate bunnies into our hands and chirping in saccharine voices, “Happy Easter! Happy Easter!” The lines were long during lunch, but the wait was worth it. Fresh-carved turkey and ham, yams (as always, lay off the allspice, Mr. Contractor Chef!), corn on the cob, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh-baked jalapeno-cheese rolls with a special herb-butter spread, sparkling grape cider, and desserts out the wazoo. I took a slice of coconut cream pie, but by the time I reached that course I was already at the bursting point. I took one, polite bite and pushed it aside. Easter dinner: done.

The afternoon at work was rather melancholy and I wasn’t sure why until Sergeant First Class Flores turned around in her chair and said, “You know, I think this is the first Easter I’ve ever had to work in my life.” She’s right—I thought back over my past 41 Easters and I can’t remember a time when I had to toil away on the Lord’s (Risen) Day. It wasn’t just the hard-work part that had me down, though; I was blue because I was really missing Jean and the kids. I missed the excitement of the traditional Easter morning basket hunt. Though it was always over in five minutes, it’s one of the traditions I enjoyed.

I swiveled back to my computer screen and scrolled through the latest reports from the brigades. I sighed. The kids, in their late teens but not too cool for old-school Easter tradition, would be hunting through the living room of our house in Georgia right about now, in each search of their basket with its nests of candy. But me, I have to spend my Easter Sunday here in Iraq trying not to be a basket case.

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