KABUL, Afghanistan - Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, thousands of miles from their loved ones, did things this Christmas Day that they wouldn't at home. They improvised - building an ersatz Christmas tree out of stacked communications equipment - and then they partied.
At Camp Phoenix, outside Kabul, dinner included prime rib, shrimp cocktail, and a cake the shape, and nearly the size, of a Christmas tree.
After the sun went down, and the mammoth spread of food was removed, the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation club at Camp Phoenix cleared the dance floor and blasted hip-hop music until midnight.
NATO units from Romania, who maintain a detachment at Phoenix, invited Georgia National Guardsmen to an evening barbecue, but only a few were up to the challenge of yet another meal.
"You've got to do something to break up the monotony," said Capt. Delando Langley of Woodbridge, Va. "If you get one down day, it's Christmas."
With the American military's "General Order No. 1" still in effect, all revelers were teetotalers. U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan are prohibited from consuming alcohol.
Langley spent Christmas evening sipping on an iced tea - regular, not Long Island - with friends.
"Sometimes you're only limited by your own creativity," said Capt. Chuck Newton of Lithonia, Ga.
A group calling itself Operation Christmas delivered more than 2,800 bags of gifts to the camp.
The holidays test troop morale for the unit, which is in the ninth month of this deployment. Many Guardsmen at Phoenix also served a one-year tour in Iraq from spring 2005 to 2006.
"You just try to keep them active and let them know they're cared about," said Sgt. First Class Mark Southerland of Sharpsburg, Ga. "Next season you'll be with your families."
Throughout Nangahar province, Georgia Guard members, also from the 48th Brigade, peppered their barren bases and heavily armored MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles) with creative signs of Christmas.
Spec. David Brunson, 21, of Rome, Ga., donned reindeer ears instead of a helmet, which popped out of the turret of his MRAP as he visited a base near Torkum Gate, an entry route from Pakistan.
Nearby, Staff Sgt. Michael Gloyd, 32, of Marietta, Ga., and his comrades turned extra communications antennas on their side and stacked them atop one another to create a makeshift tree. He estimated the tree was worth $10,000 of antennas, the miniature ornaments an additional $5.
One decoration was particularly special: an ornament from the Marietta police department, where he works as an officer when not deployed.
"I looked at my guys one day and said, 'We need a tree,' and this was the best we could find around here," Gloyd said. "We like it."
Underneath the tree, someone had placed gifts, but no one could figure out who wrapped them or what was inside.
"Maybe they're orders," a soldier quipped.
"Or another manual for us to read," chimed in another.
In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the Guard's Charlie troop took the day off from patrols. Instead, soldiers in motorized carts went around the base delivering care packages.
In the computer room, soldiers hooked up their Web cameras and talked to families that showed them what they got for Christmas. On some screens, families positioned their cameras so their soldier could see the tree. And the line for the phones lasted all day.
By nightfall, the troops gathered around a fire pit. Nearby, someone set up a table stacked with cigars and cans of eggnog and a small lit tree. A radio blared Christmas classics, all sung with a Southern twang.
But even in Jalalabad, where violence is relatively low, soldiers could not escape the risks of war. A mortar landed in a nearby base, arriving with a muddled thump as the soldiers sang carols together over the fire. By evening, commanders began planning for today's patrols.