Sgt. Dorothy McRae, from left, 34, from Austin, TX., Stf. Sgt. Nicholas Sutherland, 31, of Kansas City, MO., and Stf. Sgt. Merdado Paralejas, 41, of San Diego, Calif. unload packages that arrived in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan for the soldiers of the 1st Battalion 5th infantry Regiment on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

The day started with a mail delivery. By 8 a.m., soldiers were unloading and sorting the cargo containers packed with boxes, arriving just in time for Christmas…and ahead of Santa Claus. Soldiers spent the next five hours emptying the container and sorting the boxes by company. Santa planned to take the packages to the soldiers at various strongpoints in southern Afganistan.
 

Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment dons a Santa suit to visit his troops in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Payne is among the 4,000 soldiers deployed with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team 25th Infantry Division based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

At 1300, Santa grabs his rifle and heads for his Stryker. He plans a “battlefield circulation,” visitng the battalion strongpoints in Southern Afganistan over the next two days.

Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment puts on his body armor over a Santa suit to visit his troops in Kandahar Province Afghanistan on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

 No body armor, no go. With one motion, Santa swings his vest complete with ammo over his head and into place. Santa’s helpers stand ready and waiting. His elves are members of his TAC team, the soldiers in his security detail who roll with Stryker convoy.

Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment gets his fake white beard caught in his body armor on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Sgt. Kent Howell, right, 29, Loganville, Georgia, tries to help Payne as Sgt. Christopher Whatley, left, 22, from New Orleans, La., watches. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

For the finishing touch, Santa grabs his hat and tries to put it over his helmet. The hat won’t fit. 

Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment tries to put his Santa hat over his helmet as he prepares to visit his troops in Kandahar Province Afghanistan on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

 
Santa mounts his Stryker and pokes his head through the hatch. As the convoy moves through the arid countryside, the Strykers pass mud walls and dusty fields. On the street, the gunners keep their eyes on vehicles on the road. Motorcyle behind. Motorcyle passing on the left. Hold up. Truck stopped ahead.
 
Young girls in long dresses with sequins that sparkle in the sunlight wave at Santa as he passes. He waves a white-gloved hand in return. Men walking along the roadside do a doubletake at the guy in the bright red suit and white beard. Boys on bicyles stop and cheer and wave.
 
At Kenjakak, Santa meets Capt. Christopher Zagursky, Charlie Company commander. He leads Santa through the TOC, Tactical Operating Center. Santa shakes hands with soldiers. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.
 
Charlie Company’s Afghan interpreter arrives with hand-cut, fresh fried potatoes and offers a plate of them to Command Sgt. Major Bowen. Santa wanders among the tents, knocking on doors and popping in to wish Merry Christmas to unsuspecting soldiers.
 
At the gym, Sgt. Robert Taylor, 30, of Tampa, Fl., says he’d like an endorsement letter for Officer Candidate School from Santa. And Stf. Sgt. Kirk Goff asks if he can sit on Santa’s lap. Santa obliges. Goff asks Santa for an M-4 rifle. “If I had one that wasn’t on the books that’d be alright.” That’s one wish Santa won’t be able to grant.

Stf. Sgt. Kirk Goff, 25, Swansea, S.C., sits on the lap of Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment in Kandahar Province Afghanistan on Sat. Dec. 24, 2011. Payne donned a Santa suit to visit his troops. Goff asked for an M-4 rifle. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

 Santa and his elves stay at Kenjakak past sunset, returning to base under the night sky and bright stars. The chow hall is closed. No milk and cookies tonight. Just cold cereal and diet sodas. And the satisfaction of a good day’s work.

A soldier with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team 25th Infantry Division leads a stryker back to base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on Saturday, Dec. 25, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

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