How the military celebrates the New Year, according to combat veterans

“Oh my God, you could see that shit from space.”
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
USS Carl Vinson New Year's Eve
Sailors ring in the new year at midnight with a qualification fire of pencil flares in the first time zone west of the International Date Line aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. (PO2 James Evans/U.S. Navy)

New Year’s Eve. Deployed. No family in sight. That’s something many who have served in the U.S. military have experienced. But don’t shed a tear: These combat veterans recall their New Year’s Eve celebrations as some of their top ‘ringing in the New Year’ celebrations of all time. 

The experiences of service members on the eve of the new year have varied throughout the years. Some celebrated by holding a freezing cold church service in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Others, more recently, could video-chat with family back home as they watched the ball drop in New York City. Either way, an American serving their nation far from home will always find a way to ring in the new year while deployed. 

Kyle Dykstra

What better way to ring in the new year than sending a massive fireball into the Afghan sky? That’s the experience Kyle Dykstra, a forward observer with the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, had while deployed to Fire Base Tycz in Deh Rawod, Afghanistan in 2009.

Dykstra and the rest of his platoon were attached to a 7th Special Forces Group ODA tasked with training local Afghan police departments. The Green Berets were set to redeploy back home soon and had to get rid of several 55-gallon drums of diesel and leftover explosives before they could hand over the base to the next ODA. So why not detonate it all together at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve? 

“They said, ‘Hey man, we’re going to go out and, and uh, we’ve got some stuff planned for New Year’s Eve. You guys want to join us?” Dykstra recalled.

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It was an easy choice. Dykstra and his platoon had been hitting it hard training their Afghan allies. They pulled all of their vehicles out to the edge of the firebase after the Green Berets set up their New Year’s Eve ‘fireworks.’ 

“I think it was about 25 55-gallon drums rigged up with demo,” Dykstra said. “At midnight, they set it off. I don’t know how much demo they put on it, but oh my god, you could see that shit from space — like it was just a huge fireball.”

Then, several of the soldiers, both Afghans and Americans, started firing off some of their firearms. The explosion was big enough to where nearby firebases started reaching out to make sure they weren’t under attack.

It was a New Year’s Eve that Dykstra and many from his platoon still talk about to this day. 

Jason Wolff

Wolff served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, including the first battle of Fallujah in 2003. They would celebrate the new year on their way home from Iraq aboard LHD Boxer, so Wolff and the rest of the ship were cleared to knock back two beers — even more if you knew the right people — to celebrate the arrival of 2004. 

They had a traditional American grill out with hot dogs and burgers to go along with the beer, but the fun didn’t stop there. The ship carried out live fire exercises with the Mk15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), and as dusk gave way to late night, fireworks were launched from the ship.

“It was fun. It was cool to see. I’m glad they allowed us to drink a little bit. Some drank more than others. Yes, there were fights. It was just a good time,” Wolff said. “Those things stood out to me. Like, holy shit. There are fireworks, and there is beer. You realize we’re Marines, right? Do you understand what you’re doing?” 

To top off celebrating the New Year on their way home after a hellacious deployment, Wolff and several others earned their entrance into the unofficial order of the golden shellback, which means they had crossed the International Date Line while on orders. 

Brendan Powers

Powers served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a truck driver, then later in the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk crew chief, and now in the Army Reserve as a Black Hawk pilot. While in the Marine Corps, he deployed to Iraq in 2006.

Powers and some fellow Marines picked up a season of “24” from one of the local markets just a few days before New Year’s Eve. The fresh entertainment was acquired just in time, as they started taking mortars from morning to night, restricting them to their hooches with nothing to do but watch TV. 

“Every time an episode would end, another incoming siren sounded, and we’re like, ‘let’s start another episode.’ So it’s kind of a funny thought,” Powers said. “Our New Year’s Eve was just watching an entire season of 24.” 

Powers remembers the experience fondly, noting that “24” is such a bingeable show and they had been under mortar attacks enough times that they were desensitized to the danger and saw the experience as spending quality time with friends.

“Essentially, the danger wasn’t that front of mind because we had been exposed to it before, and we could just kind of laugh about it and just enjoy the time with friends,” Powers said.

The one time they tried taking a peek outside at the, uh, fireworks show that was going on outside of their living container, the “fun police” yelled at them to get back inside. 

Auston Marineau

Marineau spent his 2019 New Year’s Eve standing on top of Saddam’s old Ba’ath party headquarters in Baghdad, at FOB Union III across from the U.S. embassy. He was deployed as the aide-de-camp to a two-star general who was deputy commander of a combined joint task force. 

When he first arrived in country, things were pretty quiet, and they were expecting an almost boring deployment. Not long after arriving, Turkey’s incursion into Syria took place, former President Donald Trump ordered the raid against ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and any stability that had been gained within Iraq was under threat.

American airstrikes took out Iran-backed militias, and several of the militia members were Iraqis, so Marineau’s unit knew there would be funeral processions somewhere in Baghdad but didn’t know when and where. 

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, they looked outside and saw a massive funeral procession made up of militia members coming down the road toward the embassy. 

“Then all of a sudden, they’re protesting outside the embassy gate, and that went on all day. As night came, it started getting more violent. That’s when they were trying to break down the gates. I think they got into the outer perimeter, where they were able to get into one of the security booths and started burning documents and all this other stuff.”

Because of the potential for the situation to turn deadly, Marineau and his fellow soldiers had to put on their full battle kit and were ordered to stay inside, eating box dinners they ate from the safety of their base buildings. But, curiosity about the current situation built. 

They climbed up to the 12th floor of the old Ba’ath party headquarters building within the perimeter of the base and watched as the fire at the embassy gate grew. Eventually, the fire started to die down and the rioters began going into tents they set up to occupy the area in front of the gate.   

“You look off into the distance over by the main downtown area of Baghdad, and you see all these fireworks popping off and people celebrating the New Year,” Marineau said. “It was very surreal because just being in the position where I had knowledge of how big of a deal an attack on our embassy was and how that was going to kind of potentially change a lot of things.”

It was a New Year’s Eve he won’t ever forget. 

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