Fort Lewis spokesman Joe Piek shared this story he wrote for the Northwest Guardian about Fr. Tim Vakoc when the two were deployed to Iraq in 2003.
Soldiers gather for Christmas services
By Lt. Col. Joseph Piek
3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division
FOB PACESETTER, Iraq – As Arrowhead Brigade soldiers kept round-the-clock pressure on non-compliant enemy forces in the nearby town of Samarra, many 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Soldiers gathered from across the base camp to pause for Christmas services.
For one relatively silent night, the long-abandoned and cavernous Iraqi air force hangar that serves as a dining facility by day was transformed into a cathedral-like chapel.
Chaplain assistants from across the brigade as well as 296th Brigade Support Battalion volunteers arranged rows of plastic patio chairs like pews, as the praise band greeted churchgoers with familiar Christmas carols. Others passed out candles from a box deployed from Fort Lewis to mark the occasion.
On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, 3rd Brigade Ch. (Maj.) Wayne Garcia and 296th BSB Ch. (Capt.) David Curlin conducted a 10 p.m. Protestant candlelight service. A praise band of drums, electric, bass and acoustic guitars, keyboard, and a seven-Soldier chorale filled the echoing concrete and steel hangar with songs of Christmas joy.
Garcia asked the Soldiers and civilian contractors to make the best of this year by spreading the “light” and meaning of Christmas. Symbolically, each person lit a candle and wick-by-wick the darkened hangar filled with glowing brilliance.
As the final strains of “Silent Night” echoed, tears of missing family at Christmas time overcame several Soldiers in the chorale and in the audience.
A message of proximity was the theme of the Catholic midnight mass, led by Chaplain (Capt.) Tim Vakoc, 44th Corps Support Battalion, which followed in the same makeshift chapel.
“It wasn’t so far away from here,” Vakoc said, referring to the brigade’s current location compared to Bethlehem. “Just a couple days journey, depending on whether you’re on camel or humvee,” Vakoc said, eliciting smiles and a few laughs from the Soldiers.
Vakoc painted the Christmas story in vivid detail, a word-picture that took on new meaning this year for Arrowhead Soldiers, especially when Vakoc said, “And for Mary and Joseph it was probably cold, too.” A few Soldiers were heard to say, “Amen,” acknowledging that December nights in the desert get downright chilly.
Garcia, Curlin, and Vakoc conducted Christmas morning services in the morale tent for Soldiers who worked the night shift. Infantry battalion chaplains held services for their troops in the field.
All through the brigade on this day of remembrance Curlin said the one sentiment he heard from many Soldiers was that “this was a Christmas they will not soon forget.”