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Troops' new Iraq mission: Secret Santa

December 24, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In addition to mortar attacks, shootings and bombings, American troops had another pressing concern last week: what gifts to give when they play Secret Santa.

Across Iraq, soldiers have been ordering online and buying up greeting cards, wrapping paper and ribbons at the PX, or post exchange.

Some may land a Secret Santa who's more naughty than nice -- think sheets and fly swatters. But they might also get lucky: Those who win a PX lottery get to buy themselves a PlayStation 3, a hot commodity virtually unavailable in Iraq.

Some perused Iraqi bazaars set up in trailers on their bases, where handmade sandstone carvings and knife sets sell for $25 to $140 and can be shipped home by FedEx. Others were picking out gag gifts, including Chippendales-style calendars that easily meet the average $30 Secret Santa price limit.

Bill Meehan of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., was buying gag gifts last week at the PX at Camp Speicher, north of the capital. And Meehan, 28, of Providence, R.I., was more than just a Secret Santa this year: He was playing Mr. Claus in public.

"My dad sent me this outfit, so I bought a lot of small stuff that I can pass out. These two guys hate the flies, so I bought them fly swatters. And deodorant," Meehan said.

He browsed last week at the base PX, where employees played "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and posted Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa signs.

Nearby, a husband and wife were combing the racks. The couple's division already had had a Christmas party with a live band, but their unit planned to exchange gifts at a smaller gathering on Christmas Eve.

"We traded names at work. I got them a bunch of junk food, and he's looking for a movie," said Robin Perez, 26, of Tampa, Fla., stationed at Speicher with the Army's 25th Infantry Division. Perez already sent gifts home to her family, including a T-shirt for her brother that says, "My sister is serving in Iraq."

Waiting in the checkout line, Army Lt. Col. Roosevelt Corpering of Ashtabula, Ohio, said he'd already bought his Secret Santa gift: sheets, size 27, for the unusually narrow Army bunks, available at the PX for $35. Like many troops this year, Corpering, who's normally based at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, did the rest of his shopping online.

"It's easier than buying and shipping," he said.

The PX system is run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, a private, Dallas-based company that operates 3,100 stores in more than 30 countries, including 54 in Iraq. In 2005, their earnings totaled $378 million, and about 70% was reinvested in stores and military programs.

Despite the holiday ambience, the PX remains more general store than mall, said Frederick Hill, who manages the Speicher exchange. It stocks fleece jackets beside digital cameras, DVDs, shampoo, magazines, safety glasses and instant noodles. The selection puts a crimp in gift shopping but satisfies troops' basic needs, he said.

Outside, Sgt. Qiayonda Hampton, 26, with the 25th Infantry's 209th aviation support unit, was walking with a rifle across her back and two plastic bags full of supplies and gifts. She was Secret Santa to a certain Spc. Davis, who was getting a Zippo lighter and hunting knife set. The gifts cost $10 more than her $30 price limit, but Hampton, of Bridgeport, Conn., said she was willing to break the rules this once.

In Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Juan Cantu, 35, who is with the 28th combat support unit, hit the PX on Friday. He had ordered a gift online for the Secret Santa exchange, but just received word that his unit was leaving Baghdad. He's not sweating it.

"It will come in the mail, one way or another," he said.

molly.hennessy-fiske

@latimes.com

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