Christmas With the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan

They prayed for their families, their fellow troops and the chance to see another day. The Christmas worship service at the Bak District Center in this volatile valley of irrigated canals and mud brick compounds was a small and somber affair — a chaplain and 10 other men.

The soldiers, officers and enlisted men from the U.S Army's 82nd Airborne's 2-321 Battalion clutched their caps and muttered along a nondenominational prayer reader. The chaplain, Capt Scott Kannaugh, a tall missionary with a distant gaze, read earnestly from John 1:14.

He prayed that peace, which reigned at the time Jesus was born, would again become flesh. But it's not peace or salvation many of the men in the Bak District Center desire, but something much more earthly — a ticket home.

This is their 12th month in a 15-month deployment, one extended in April, three months into their tour. They spent their first five months here, through the searing summer and now through the bone-snapping winter.

Some like Sgt. Jason Laurencelle didn't even know it was Christmas.

"I had no idea until my little sister called." Another soldier chimed in that the single way to make time pass was not to mark it. "You can't think about what day of the week it is … then suddenly months slip by."

The district center is a new concept, a brainchild of counterinsurgency warfare. It calls on small groups of soldiers to live with the Afghan police and military units they train out in the countryside. That's what brings the men of the 2-321 Battalion to the rural Khowst region.

There are four such centers, and three on the way. Maj. David Pierce, the operations officer of this battalion, said this is the only province in which coalition forces are embedded in district centers. It's a method that appears to be working. The Khowst province, which the Soviets never managed to subdue during their 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, has largely been cleared of Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents.

Yet the rest of Afghanistan is reeling after suffering the deadliest year since 2001. More than 6,000 Afghans died this year, and coalition aircraft dropped 30 times more bombs than it did in 2004.

The men are proud. But the cold and isolation gnaw at them.

"The progress is so slow that the byword is that things happen at the 'pace of Afghanistan.' They don't see much change, so maybe it doesn't feel as rewarding, as if in 10 years, we could look back and say 'wow things over there are a lot different,'" said Kannaugh.

The troops roll out nearly every day, passing locals that rarely wave but pour out of mud huts to watch the armored pageant rumble by, often asking for gifts.

Christmas provided only a short respite. After a short benediction, given by Pierce and the chaplain, the men lined up for a festive meal — frozen cannonball turkeys and hams sufficiently thawed, stuffing, corn, yams, even cranberry sauce were also offered.

One of the officers laid out a little spread on a table, with cookies sent by his parishioners. He set up a a box filled with junk food and candy.

The free time this Christmas was spent watching movies. "It's a Wonderful Life" has made a comeback among some troops. "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" was another favorite. The troops called home to families. Some talked about their bills. Others listened to their babies gurgle.

Sgt. Jared Leable had just spoken to his fiance. He told her next Christmas they'd be together. "I felt sad talking to her," he said, "but that's momentary. You have to focus on the rest of the deployment and the mission at hand so that we can make it home to enjoy the good things we're missing on a day like today."

For some, so much time away from home has strained relationships to the point of breaking. Soldiers here say divorce rates have soared since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates extended most deployments in Afghanistan to 15 months.