My wife reminded me of a very special Christmas that took place in 2003. But it was not a Christmas we shared together. During this year I found myself traveling around the world to several different military destinations. I had been called up from the reserves in late 2002 to serve as the Assistant Command Chaplain for the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) headquartered at Camp Pendleton, California.
The I MEF was the main Marine command leading the charge in Iraq, and in particular, the taking of Baghdad. I left Camp Pendleton on the first of May for my new assignment as Command Chaplain at Camp Commando in Kuwait. Sand storms were quickly added to my list of least favorite experiences. I also spent a week in Babylon, Iraq (about 45 miles south of Baghdad) where I MEF was headquartered. Then it was back to Camp Commando where I figured I’d serve out the rest of my time overseas. About a month later I was contacted by the Command Chaplain of Marine Forces Pacific (MarForPac) in Hawaii. He asked me if I would accept a new assignment. I asked where this might be. He said, “Djibouti.” The name Djibouti rattled around in my brain attempting to find a geographic location. All I could remember was Djibouti was somewhere on the African continent. Anyway, the assignment was for me to set up the command religious program for the base. Sounded like a challenge I would enjoy, so I agreed to go.
I was flown back to the States from Kuwait to enjoy a couple of weeks of leave with my family before heading for Djibouti for six months. I had to pick up my orders and plane tickets at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Florida. The day I flew into Djibouti the temperature was 145 degrees. I knew this was going to be a challenging time just adjusting to the climate!
After I was there about four months we were coming up on Christmas. The base chapel was a very busy spot. My RP (Religious Program Specialist) and I brewed Starbucks coffee each morning which soon became a popular item for our military personnel, stopping in for a quick cup before heading for their assigned duties that day. The chapel was constructed of thick plywood in the classic design of the old style churches that had a steeple and pitched roof. For some reason lost to me there were several strands of miniature white Christmas lights in the chapel. This was the first Christmas since this base was established, so you can see why I was flummoxed over having Christmas lights on hand. Other service members had friends and family ship them more lights. We put the lights all along the trim of the chapel. In early December I set up an official lighting ceremony. I arranged to have the Commanding Officer (CO), a Marine colonel, do the honors of plugging in the lights at 9:00 PM. A large crowd of service members had gathered outside of the chapel for the event. When the lights came on, the best way I can describe it is that it was magical! The oohs and aahs from the folks present were proof enough.
A few days later I ran into the CO. We were discussing the lights on the chapel when he suggested that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea having the lights lit at night on the chapel, especially since the chapel was centrally located on the base and made for a rather attractive target for the bad guys. Djibouti is about the size of Rhode Island and is surrounded by nations that were breeding terrorists – which is why this counter-terrorism base was established. I agreed that the chapel made for a convenient target for the bad guys, but I said, “Sir, they already know we're here.” He agreed and the lights stayed lit all through Christmas. Because we had personnel working shifts around the clock throughout the base, I kept the lights lit on the chapel all night long. It really was a sight to see! The major portion of the base spread out below the chapel, so when the lights were on it was very easy to see it from our tented living quarters. Felt like a bit of home for us all.
I had many service members tell me how much they enjoyed seeing the chapel lit up for Christmas that way. Many pictures were taken, and it was a topic of conversation for weeks.
Next week I will share more of my Christmas in Djibouti with you. It was not only a magical experience, but I got to see God’s people do some amazing things, and to witness something even I could not have anticipated.