When it comes to decorating for Christmas downrange, Marines get the job done.
At a dining facility at Al Taqqadum, Iraq, a model gingerbread mansion and surrounding village towered over nearby tables. At Camp Shorab in Helmand province, Afghanistan, a Christmas tree made from green sandbags and strung with lights and decorations turned heads, and durable desert-hued stockings styled after military MOLLE packs adorned an austere office space.
The military goes out of its way to bring the holiday home to troops, packaging up a hot meal to send to a sparsely equipped outpost in Afghanistan and hosting a star-studded USO show at Bagram Airfield. But even so, there's no camouflaging the fact that Christmas away from the comforts of family and home is tough.
Missions outside the wire continued through Christmas day, and flightlines still hummed and screamed as rotary-wing aircraft landed and fighters launched. In Italy, a sumptuous dinner feast of lobster, beef, and a vast array of baked goods interrupted what was otherwise a normal work day for many.
- Marines' Top Officer Was Once Scolded for Being a Grinch
- These Troops Deployed to Middle East Make War by Day, Art by Night
- Marine Leaders Highlight Norway Unit's Role as Deterrent to Russia
- Marines Want to 'Pull Back' From Middle East as Russia, Pacific Loom
But when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller stopped by bases in the Middle East and Europe this week on his annual Christmas tour to visit deployed Marines, he spared little time for self-pity.
"For some of you, it may be your first Christmas away from home," he told a group of several hundred Marines near Trondheim, Norway, at the start of his tour. "For some of you, it may be your first Christmas away from home. If you stay in this organization, it won't be your last Christmas away from home. That's just the way it is."
Spending holidays deployed doesn't get any easier, Neller continued. But, he said, troops should rely on each other -- their Marine Corps family -- for support.
"So figure out how to get through this with each other," he said.
The speeches Neller gave at various forward installations were full of admonitions and somber advice. He warned Marines to quit drinking to excess and cautioned them to protect their rank and reputation by avoiding crime and misbehavior. At bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, he scowled as he charged Marines, at all costs, to avoid becoming a casualty of carelessness.
"Don't get blown up," he challenged them.
But he and his senior enlisted adviser, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, also dispensed help and solutions whenever they could.
A Marine who pointed out errors in a professional military education course for corporals had his contact information taken down by Green, with promises to fix the problem, even before Neller could finish answering his question. When Neller found out Marines in Norway didn't have access to a virtual library resource, he told Marines he'd take care of it. A late-night question-and-answer session at a Middle Eastern base ended up including a reenlistment ceremony for two Marines.
For Staff Sgt. Kenneth Rick, Green and Neller's presence did make a difference.
Rick, who is stationed at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, as the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the personal security detail at the base, said being reminded by Neller of the Marines' role in the larger fight against ISIS was rewarding.
"The Marines here and all the supporting units, they can see somewhat of the big picture of what's been done during our time here. And the commandant himself will come out here, the holidays included, to let us know, 'hey, this is the big picture,'" he said. "I think it helps bring it home."
Cpl. Thomas Rajesh, who was one of a small group of Marines selected to have lunch with Neller at Al Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq, said loving his work made it easier to be away from home during the deployment.
"I've loved my service, I've had a great career, and the Marine Corps has given me a lot of opportunities I don't think I'll ever get for the rest of my life," said Rajesh, who works as a joint fires observer for the Marines' crisis response task force in the Middle East. "We're in the fight to be a part of history here in Iraq."
Sgt. Joseph O'Brien, who serves as the tactical lead for the personal security detail of Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, head of Task Force Southwest in Helmand province, said small homey touches make it easier to enjoy the Christmas season downrange.
O'Brien said he has enjoyed care packages from his girlfriend and gifts from the community of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his Reserve unit, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, is stationed. He said he and fellow unit members have hung stockings, and his roommate decorated a small Christmas tree to add ambience.
But O'Brien said he knows he will miss more Christmases in his Marine Corps career, and he doesn't mind.
"It's not a huge sacrifice," he said. "I'm proud to do it; I'm glad to do it. I know there are people who have missed a lot more."