Christmas in Afghanistan: Thoughts of home as US troops get on w - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Christmas in Afghanistan: Thoughts of home as US troops get on with job

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By Kiko Itasaka, Producer, NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan - It was neither a silent nor holy night for American troops based in Afghanistan.

With the whir of choppers overhead, weapons holstered at their sides, and convoys rolling out, everyone was constantly reminded of the job at hand and dangers they face.

SPC Marum May spent Christmas morning cleaning and doing maintenance on his M16 rifle, bracing for any situation.

"We are always on guard and ready to respond to any incident. So it is just like any other day, even though it is Christmas," he said.

May is stationed at Camp Phoenix, an American military base in Kabul that is part of the approximately 43,000 American troops serving their country in Afghanistan.

For them, Christmas is just another working day.

And combat troops are not the only ones hard at work. It has been a busy few weeks for Lt. Raphael Gonzalez, the officer in charge at the camp's mail room.

"Combat is important, but mail is the second most important thing because that is connection with families," said Gonzalez, from Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

Shifting as much as 22,000 pounds of mail a day in the holiday season is a pleasure and an honor, he says.

"Every package, letter and card counts. They notice their families are thinking of them praying that they return home safely," he said.

Keeping spirits bright is especially hard in the holiday season, says Chaplain Major Craig Holloway. This time of year he offers special counseling. "This time of year it is really tough to be away from home."

"It hurts. It's really hard," said Staff Sgt. Julie Vasquez, a military intelligence analyst. A single mom, Vasquez is spending her first Christmas away from her two daughters, 5-year-old Bria and 10-year-old Ariana, who live at home in Mobile, Ala., with her mother.

Being able to Skype helps her stay in touch, but even that can be bittersweet.

Recently Bria told her, "Mom, don't you wish we had a magic genie lamp and we could rub it and you could come home any time you want?"

But Vasquez says she has no regrets about her deployment, and especially loves the difference American troops are making in the lives of Afghan children.

"I want them all to be able to make something of themselves and live their dreams," she said, reflecting on a recent visit to an Afghan girls' school.

That pride in helping schoolchildren is shared by Maj. Wayne Norman from Pensacola, Fla. His mission has been to work on civil affairs, including building schools.

"What I've seen, most of them were in tents, so were were able to build eight to 12-room classrooms. And with shifts, a school can have up to 5,000 students a day," he said.

He says he thinks of his own two children when he oversees schools being built.

"It is a good cause. I see the effects I have made, and it is making a difference," he said.

The soldiers do carve out time for a turkey and other Christmas treats on offer at the dining hall.  7500 meals will be served at Camp Phoenix, with a total of with 1260 pounds of prime rib, 336 pounds of ham, and a staggering 2200 pounds of turkey.

Still, it's hard not to miss loved ones far away.

37-year old Staff Sgt. Laura Roe's, eyes filled with tears when she recalled her three boys, who she called "the joys of my life."

But like so many others, Roe does her best to remain merry.

"I have made a second family here. We came together...and they are like my brothers and sisters," she said.

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