BAGHDAD — Army Sgt. Robin Cameron stood guard outside a once opulent Iraqi shopping mall that now serves as a small U.S. military outpost, trying not to think about what he was missing with his family on Christmas.
"It's just another day in Iraq," he said, waving through a convoy of armored vehicles heading out to patrol Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, once home to Saddam Hussein's favored officers and later an insurgent stronghold known for its deadly attacks on American troops.
Although troop levels are expected to start declining after provincial elections on Jan. 31, the same number are in Iraq today — about 146,000 — as in May 2003, when President George W. Bush declared the end of major hostilities two months after the invasion.
As of Christmas Day, at least 4,218 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count. The latest was a soldier was killed in a rocket or mortar attack Thursday near Mosul in northern Iraq, the military said in a statement.
On large bases and small outposts across the country, American troops marked Christmas with special meals and chapel services.
At Forward Operating Base Prosperity, in the heart of Baghdad, Capt. Jonathan Hilton took a moment Thursday to think about his family.
"I miss my family. This is my second Christmas here," said Hilton, of Orlando, Fla. "We are close to going home and they are doing a great job of taking care of soldiers and letting us experience Christmas as best they can."
On the other side of Baghdad, Cameron, 29, of Leesville, La., knows it's not just another day. In quiet moments, he will let his mind drift to his wife and two children.
But sometimes, he says, it's just easier not to think about what you're missing.
For Cameron and the other soldiers of the 4th Squadron, 10th Calvary Regiment of Fort Carson, Colo., at the Adil Shopping Center, their 15-month deployment ran through two Christmas seasons in Iraq.
Though the signs of the season are everywhere at the defunct shopping mall — from potted pines decorated with lights to stockings hung over desks — it is the spirit that is sometimes hard to maintain.
"A lot of guys struggle to find meaning in Christmas. I keep reminding them what it's about. It's a season of hope," said chaplain Capt. Matt Hemrick, of Belmont, N.C., on Christmas Eve.
But even Hemrick, 31, said his time in Iraq has made him look at Christmas in a new light.
"Until this season, I never had to live out" the season of hope, he said. "Christmas to me is spending time at home. Once you get over here, it really hits you what it really is all about."
With a more than 80 percent drop in violence in Iraq — attacks are down from 180 a day last year to about 10 a day this year, there are reasons for soldiers to be hopeful. The U.S. military, though, has acknowledged the improved security conditions remain fragile.
Sgt. Major David Dantzler lost 19 men during his last deployment. This time, he said, there have been no casualties.
It's perhaps in that spirit, that Dantzler for weeks has been asking soldiers if they mailed Christmas cards home, if they put up decorations, if they picked up holiday care packages mailed by strangers half a world away.
Dantzler 44, of Cleveland, Tenn., says he's trying to help his soldiers stave off depression and remind them about the sacrifices of the families, too.
"People say it must be easier the more you" deploy, he said, shaking his head. "It's not easy."
Dantzler, like his men, has missed many moments with his wife and two children, now almost grown.
"The Christmases I was used to, with small children, are completely gone," he said. "I don't feel like I'v been cheated. But I feel like I lost a lot here."
With less than two months to go before the soldiers return to Colorado, Dantzler and others say they are trying to keep focused on their end of deployment gift: time home with family.
"I took it all for granted, you know, my wife, my kids," said Sgt. Michael Serrano, 25, of Perth Amboy, N.J. "My son told his teacher all he wanted for Christmas was a Hulk toy and for his dad to come home. I'm going to make sure he gets both."
Inside a makeshift chapel in the defunct mall, Hemrick and Dantzler worked out musical arrangements for "Joy to the World" and other standards for a service to be held hours later.
While many of the soldiers' family members will make dashes to malls to buy last-minute presents, this Christmas in this Iraqi mall Dantzler is looking for only one gift: peace.
"We've had a couple of days in Iraq without any attacks. So I know it's possible," he said. "Even one day of peace, that would be great."