We’d been in country since the second week of December. We had completed riding shotgun with our predecessors and had fully taken over our duties from them. I was one of the convoy commanders for runs to the airfield. The other guy had perfect teeth. We called him Chompers. We’d switch out every few days.

In the lead up to Christmas, the camp had decorated the chow hall. Sparkly garland and cheap cardboard Santas festooned the walls, drink coolers and the sneeze guard on the salad bar. The hardest core of the admin and support folks had decorated their work spaces, as well. But it sure as hell didn’t feel like Christmas. It was like seeing Christmas stuff in the stores in October: Empty. Vapid. Devoid of meaning.

After the shots, sleep deprivation, dust, funk, and immediate change in climate from mob station at Fort Bragg to western Afghanistan, we were all sick. Everybody was hacking and coughing. There wasn’t much we could do about it. The little troop medical center didn’t have anything that could help. There wasn’t a PX to buy anything over the counter. We were just sick.

Particularly hard hit was the Kraut. The Kraut was the rifleman on my fireteam. He had previously deployed to Iraq, so I leaned on him for advice and expertise. He also helped me keep tabs on the other two knuckleheads on my team.

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On Christmas Eve, we were sitting on our bunks, chatting. I had opened a box from my wife and had received some DVDs and various candy. “Hey, Kraut,” I asked. “What do you like best about Christmas?”

The Kraut was originally from Stuttgart. He had studied cooking at an Italian restaurant before coming to the US.

“Panettone. My boss at the restaurant would make it every Christmas. I love it.”

I filed away this information.

11556037564_782d8ef990_bU.S. Army photo courtesy of 2nd Cavalry Regiment.

We worked on Christmas Day. We had a few people to get to the airfield and maybe some to pick up. The team tasked with training the Afghans were off. The security forces platoon was on. We were always on.

First call on the trucks was before dawn. The Kraut had really gone downhill and was pretty much on bed rest. We mounted our trucks and headed to the airfield.

The Slovenians at the gate were the only people moving at the airfield when we got there. The Italians and Spanish were nowhere to be seen. A skeleton crew manned the passenger tent and air ops offices.

We got our passengers on their bird and then had some time to kill before another one came in. Having missed breakfast at our camp, I struck out for the Italian chow hall.

There I discovered the reason for the lack of movement at the airfield. They had held a massive blowout of a party. The tables were littered with the detritus of a booze-up the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my college days. Lobster shells, prosecco bottles, wine bottles, beer cans, plates, napkins, stale bread.

Panettone.

Every table had at least one in various states of repair. I looked around and found one that hadn’t been touched. I quickly grabbed a knife and sliced about a quarter off the loaf. Loading it onto a clean plate, I then covered it with a napkin. After hustling back to my Cougar, I set it on the console between the front seats.

When we finally got back to camp that night, I went to our tent with my prize. The Kraut wasn’t on his bunk. One of the guys said he had gone up to the MWR hut to call his wife. I set the package on the Kraut’s bunk, grabbed a book and settled in to wait.

About a chapter and a half later, the door swung open. It was the Kraut. Quickly closing the door, he went to his bunk. He looked down for a second before recognition set in.

“Panettone,” he smiled.

I replied, “Merry Christmas, Kraut.”