"What do I want for Christmas?" I repeated, somewhat surprised by the question. "I want you to get home safely."
The 21-year old Tennessean, girded in 65 lbs. of armored flak jacket, a night-vision equipped helmet, grenades and several hundred rounds of ammunition reflected on that for a moment and replied, "so do I."
Then, quietly, from the young Iraqi soldier beside us, words in broken English that stunned me: "As do I -- but not too soon."
That exchange -- just a few days ago in Iraq -- reflects a dramatic transition sweeping through this war-torn country and a fraction of the good news that is so under-reported from the war on terror. While politicians and the mainstream media here at home focus on negative news and attacks on President Bush, young Americans and their Iraqi counterparts are quietly going about the dangerous task of building a new nation from the ashes of Saddam's dictatorship and the ravages of Jihadist terror.
During six prior trips to Iraq, the cooperation between the U.S. military and the soldiers of the new Iraqi government has never been so evident. In Ramadi, the former terrorist stronghold, American and Iraqi troops now live and operate side by side -- sharing the hardships and dangers that once were the sole purview of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. All of this bodes ill for the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose al Qaeda in Iraq failed in an effort to prevent this month's legislative elections.
The new government of Iraq, now taking shape in Baghdad, is an imperfect democracy in its formative stages. Though less vulnerable to homicidal suicide terrorists and improvised explosive device-makers than before, it could still be undone -- not by Jihadists seeking to exploit Sunni-Shia-Kurdish rivalries -- but by partisan political fratricide and a failure of will here in the United States. The young warriors manning lonely outposts in Ramadi would be shocked to learn that opponents of the Bush administration are condemning the president for eavesdropping on terrorist phone calls and insisting on an "immediate" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Though much of the press, most Democrats and too many weak-kneed Republicans claim to see few gains in Iraq, they are amply evident to those serving there. Many of the soldiers, sailors and Marines with whom I was embedded on this trip to the war are on their second, third or even fourth tour of duty in the war on terror. Their sense of purpose and accomplishment is as palpable as the danger they face, and it pervades every level of command. In this holiday season, they especially miss their families and loved ones back home, but appreciated last week's visit from Vice President Dick Cheney who also traveled to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, with a simple message: "with Christmas and Hanukkah just around the corner, I wanted to come and let you know how impressed we've been with the tremendous progress you've made."
That was certainly the sense of the troops and combat commanders I spent time with on this trip. Col. John Gronski, the commanding officer of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, of the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit out of Pennsylvania told our FOX News camera, "We're seeing some great inroads ... at the very least, we've got the people of Ramadi, the Coalition forces and, as you saw, the Iraqi Army leadership sitting down together in a room and sharing ideas on how to make the security situation better."
When I asked Lt. Col. Roger Turner, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, now on his second tour in Iraq, to reflect on the sacrifice made by so many in this war, he responded, "Sure, this is still a dangerous place. But we're making it safer every day. We have an extraordinary stake in a safe, secure and democratic Iraq. This isn't the time to stop."
Meanwhile, here at home, the president's critics demand the impossible. No one election and no single act of government will turn Iraq from violence to peace overnight. Even the birth of our Lord and Savior did not result in the end of violence. After the Baby Jesus was born, King Herrod, after being duped by the Wise Men, ordered the execution of all males under two years of age to "ensure" the death of the One who could challenge Herrod's authority.
"Goodwill on earth and peace toward men," is the message of Christmas. It is a goal toward which men and women of goodwill work and for which we pray. Nobody wants peace more than the young American warriors serving in harm's way in Iraq. They know what the politicians in Washington and the potentates of the press seem to have missed: that progress toward peace must be judged over time. These troops have been away from family and friends for many months and look forward to coming home -- but not before their job is finished. Supporting them in their mission as we pray for their safety would be wonderful gifts in this Christmas season.