FOB TALIBJAN, Afghanistan — There will be no Christmas turkey and trimmings for US marines at Patrol Base Talibjan this year -- a chemically heated meal of preserved meat is all the infantry men expect.
The troops -- living in unheated tents in the Taliban heartland of Musa Qala district, in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province -- will climb out of their sleeping bags as usual, plan patrols and hope the day ends without casualties.
"I'm hoping it's going to be a quiet day and our guys can relax a little bit," says Staff Sergeant Josh McCall, 32, who will call his wife and children at home in rural North Carolina on Saturday.
"We've got our Christmas tree set up. We had a couple of presents -- I guess everybody got excited about them and opened them prior to Christmas -- but aside from that, I just hope it's a quiet day."
Small glimpses of Christmas decorate the humble surroundings. A plastic tree is decorated with baubles and fairy lights, large stockings hang empty on a wire wall and a Christmas star made from snack food tubes tops the tree.
Christmas mail was slow to arrive at this outpost on a remote, frozen plateau, but modern technology allows the marines to contact home briefly via the Internet and satellite phone.
The marines are accustomed to missing big family events during deployments -- Corporal Michael Parry, 23, celebrated the birth of his daughter last week with a can of high energy drink "Rip It" and a pack of fruit chews.
But Navy chaplain Father William Kennedy, who stays on a larger base in southern Helmand, says the lack of presents and austere environment can be a humble reminder of the Christian holiday's true meaning.
"Here we are, and there's a lot of dust and dirt out here and you take away a lot of the externals that people might have, a lot of the glitz, and it's a good time to be very simple and to say what is Christmas about," says Kennedy.
Some sensitivity surrounds the celebration of Christmas in Afghanistan -- a Muslim country where the Taliban insurgents fighting the marines say they are waging holy Islamic war for control of the country.
Kennedy says the Afghans who support the coalition troops respect the holiday.
"We're in a Muslim country but the Muslims venerate Jesus as a prophet and the people I've met, whether it's the locals or ANA (Afghan army), the mullahs, they respect the fact that we're a religious people," he says.
At the marines' main military base in Helmand -- Camp Leatherneck -- the seasonal celebrations take on a more celebratory tone as more than 100 troops gather in a plywood chapel for a Christmas concert.
A military brass band strikes up "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the congregation, all in desert camouflage uniforms and some equipped with assault rifles, belt out the carol, reading the words off a projector screen.
The chaplain leads a prayer with a poignant address, remembering the 2,275 soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who have died in the course of the nine-year conflict, according to a tally by the independent icasualties.org.
The scale of death and destruction tests and sometimes breaks faith in the war zone, says Kennedy.
"(For some), it may cause them to reject their belief in God," he adds.
"But for many others, it's a reinforcement because they make that conscious decision that in the face of all that they see that is so hard, they make that choice that they believe."
Kennedy will be flying in to conduct a Catholic Christmas service at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Talibjan on Saturday, while marines based in the district will also be receiving a visit from the United States Marine Corps' top commander, General James Amos.
"Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is a very special time and if you can do it in Musa Qala or Sangin or Marjah in the midst of all that, it is kind of a touchstone people can have," Kennedy says.
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