Five years ago, just before Christmas, Maj. Jimmy Brownlee was training in Kuwait and sleeping in a tent, hoping war wouldn't come with Iraq but preparing for the worst.
"It was nervous anticipation," he said. "We all kind of figured we were going to war."
The prospect of war put a pall over Christmas that year, Brownlee said.
This year, he's south of Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Kalsu. He's thinking about Christmas, his wife and kids back home on Fort Stewart near Savannah, his parents in Charleston. He hasn't seen his family since May and wonders what it would be like to be home for the holidays.
Still, compared with five years ago during his first tour of duty, the mood on base is totally different.
There is plenty of holiday cheer at the base, a little island of Christianity in the middle of an Islamic nation.
"We have Christmas trees up. We have cards from everywhere. They line the offices. We have stockings up. People are sending us care packages," he said.
They haven't let their guard down just because it's the holidays, but "the atmosphere is more like what we are used to if we were home."
They plan to put a Christmas tree outside on the base and have a tree-lighting ceremony.
The base is usually pitch-black dark at night for security reasons, but he said the tree won't give off enough light to make the base a target for mortar attacks.
One of the base's interpreters is Muslim, but he has a stocking hanging up on base, too, Brownlee said, citing the blend of Christianity and Islam in Iraq.
Being in the middle of a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas and the commercialization that comes with it gives the base's personnel time to reflect on the real reason for the season, Brownlee said.
"It gives us a chance to get back to the basics," he said. "When we are home, you almost feel the pressure to buy, buy, buy. Here, we don't have that luxury. We have a small PX here, but you won't find that special gift for that special someone."
On Mondays this time of year, chaplains offer Bible study classes on the meaning of Christmas.
"It gives soldiers an opportunity to get closer to God or their religion or something they have a question about," he said. "I like it."