That was Christmas Eve 2004 for Specialist Erik Oxenbol. The above excerpt was penned at 6:05 p.m. in his journal " a hard-bound ring pad with a homey picture of a cafe on its cover. At that time, Oxenbol was serving in the First Infantry Division Big Red One in Baquba outside Baghdad. On each page of the book, he recorded his experiences " death of friends, homesickness, daily adventures, small pleasures, deep despair ... undying hope.
Today, back home after four years of service, Oxenbol is a man wiser than his age. He has faced life in its extreme uncertainties and played an active part in a war that will long be remembered by Americans. Most of all, by the age of 24, Oxenbol has indeed lived history.
"I was out there when the war first started," Oxenbol said. "We were deployed from Germany (Oxenbol's first posting from Sept. 2002 to Feb. 2003) to a small airfield in northern Iraq called Bashir. We were there about a week and then posted farther south to Kirkuk at an old Iraqi airfield. We cleared that with the help of Kurdish soldiers and we set up our main base there. I was there from Feb. 2003 to Feb. 2004."
For one whole year, Oxenbol was involved in a variety of activities " security missions, raids, setting up checkpoints. He also transported ammunition, food supplies, and miscellaneous goods throughout Iraq, sometimes driving, at other times, manning the guns on top of the convoys.
All the while, he witnessed the different reactions of the Iraqis to the Americans.
"For the most part, when we first got there, the look in the people's eyes, they were just so happy to have us there. They would come running down from the hillsides, and bring flowers to us, and wave at us," Oxenbol recalled. "But as time went, we saw a lot of them would wave at us, but you could never know who was real. You never knew who was good or bad."
Life on the front was a mix of light and darkness. Oxenbol's fondest memories are of the soldiers with whom he lived and fought.
"I really considered them as brothers," he said. "You really form a bond with your fellow buddies when you have to watch out for their backs and they have to watch out for yours. You have to trust them with your life."
The darkest moments consequently would be when someone among them would die. Or, when tomorrow would be a big question mark.
" The toughest moments were lying in bed at night, hearing mortars go off and worrying if one's going to come in through the ceiling," he said. "Every time you left the gates of the base, not knowing what could happen, not knowing if someone was going to blow you up or shoot you (was hard). It was horrible."
Oxenbol's family couldn't be more overjoyed to have him back in good health.
"I feel like the luckiest woman in the world that I could welcome my son home. Unfortunately many mothers are not able to do that," said Coleen Novo, Oxenbol's mother, who lives with her husband, Michael, Oxenbol's stepfather, in Grass Valley.
"We had signs put up in the neighborhood to welcome him home," said Michael. "We flew his brother in from San Diego. His grandmother and cousin came in from Michigan. I purposely lost a ping-pong tournament to him, so that he would feel good.
"We have the honor of living with this young man, knowing that he risked his life not only for his family, but also for his country, for people he doesn't even know."
To his friend Jillian Grill, a liberal studies junior at Sacramento State University, Oxenbol has changed in many ways for the better.
"He has become more mature, now," she said. "He has goals. He gets them done, right away. Before he joined the Army, he was kind of a carefree guy with partying and stuff. Now he still likes to be the center of the party, but at the same time he is more responsible about it."
Oxenbol, too, feels a difference in the way he now looks at life.
"Before I went out there, and had seen what I saw, I kind of took what we have here in America for granted," he said. "The way we live, the structure of the government we have, the way everything works (compared to other countries), made me realize that we're lucky to be Americans and live the way we do."
He, however, prefers to keep a neutral stand on the war.
"It is my job to do what our country demands of me," he said. "I just want to say I am glad that I did it. If I'm called again, I would be glad to go."