In Iraq, a salute to Christmas
BALAD, Iraq As the sun rose like a bright red orb over the concrete bunkers of this vanquished Iraqi air base, Maj. Grant Haugen strode to the end of a vast runway speckled with U.S. Army Chinook helicopters.
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Santa Claus, otherwise known as Sgt. 1st Class Scott Droessler, salutes during the national anthem prior to the Jingle Rock Run on Christmas Eve in Balad, Iraq. With Santa are "reindeer" Capt. Sean Voigts, center, and Linzee Custer, right foreground.|
On this, Christmas Eve, Haugen and other soldiers of the Washington state Army Reserve's Alpha Company changed from well-used flight suits into jogging shorts. Inside the protected confines of the base, they readied for their brigade's first and, as the announcer proclaimed, "dare we say annual" Jingle Rock Run.
A medley of tunes from rapper Eminem to crooner Bing Crosby blasted from loudspeakers.
Suddenly, Santa Claus appeared in a wheelbarrow pulled by antler-clad troops.
For a goofy, poignant moment, Christmas had found Iraq.
With the national anthem ringing in their ears, hundreds of soldiers dashed off on a course that snaked past Chinooks and the rusty hulks of spent Iraqi tanks.
Along the way, trucks full of infantry soldiers in helmets and bulletproof vests roared past, soldiers waving and hooting, heading for yet another patrol.
The Christmas Eve events offered the troops "something different," Haugen said. "That's what everybody needs around here. Something different. It takes their minds off the missions, at least for a while."
Haugen is commander of the more than 200 men and women of the Fort Lewis-based Alpha Company, which flies 14 of the big CH-47 Chinooks. These hulking, heavy-lift helicopters are capable of ferrying more than 20,000 pounds of supplies, or 33 passengers.
Back home in Washington, these men and women are civilian soldiers who occasionally are asked to leave their jobs as plumbers, airline pilots, firefighters and hotel workers and fly rescue missions on Mount Hood or ferry buckets of water to fight summer wildfires.
But here, in the middle of a sometimes hostile land, they ferry supplies and troops across some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq, dodging occasional ground fire from insurgents.
And since Nov. 2, when a Chinook from another base was shot down, killing 17, they fly only at night, low and with their lights out. Earlier this month, they helped transport a forensic team to the scene of Saddam Hussein's capture.
"Flying here is a lot more difficult," said Staff Sgt. Janell Correll, a flight engineer who wields an M-60 machine gun on the night flights. "Back home, I'm not worried about being shot at or running into electrical wires that I can't see."
On a freight run last night, the stars came out, but so, too, did distant tracer rounds, fired into a clear sky perhaps in celebration or hostility.
The Persian Gulf has been home for Alpha Company soldiers for nine months. They arrived in Kuwait two days after U.S. troops crossed into Iraq. In late May, they moved here, some 70 miles north of Baghdad, to a base deep in the Sunni-dominated area that has been a flashpoint for resistance.
This base was once a training ground for the Iraqi air force, and it spreads for several miles along a flat expanse near the Tigris River. It has evolved into a formidable symbol of U.S. military might, home to some 15,000 troops and a fleet of cargo planes, Chinooks and attack helicopters.
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Members of the Washington state Army Reserve's Alpha Company participate in the Jingle Rock Run on Christmas Eve at the military base in Balad, Iraq.|
The investment in the base expands by the week, with the landing strips receiving daily flights from Kuwait, Baghdad, even Germany. One of the base's broad boulevards is renamed Pennsylvania Avenue and is served by a bus line complete with American Muzak playing in each coach.
The Alpha Company, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment occupies a few acres at the southeast corner of the base. The place was a mess when the company got here, a dusty patch of brown earth surrounded by blown-up armored tanks and burned bunkers inhabited by pigeons. Mosquitoes swarm at night, and biting sand flies circle by day.
"We called them flying piranhas. It feels like they rip out a chunk of your skin when they take a bite," says Chief Warrant Officer John Roberts, a Chinook pilot.
But over time, the soldiers made their camp comfortable.
They cleaned the bunkers, turning side rooms off the main hangars into sleeping quarters. They set up rows of tents equipped with air conditioners, and now heaters take the chill off winter days. Several carpenters, led by Roberts, a Tacoma City Power building inspector, built three small plywood houses that serve as offices and additional bunkrooms.
They scored weightlifting equipment from a contractor. They pooled their cash to buy a $10,000 satellite dish that allows them to hook up their personal computers to the Internet, and they brought in gravel to keep down the summer dust that with recent winter rains has turned into a perilous, slick surface known as "brown ice."
Then there is the coffee.
An engine mechanic works back home in Seattle for Starbucks, and she has scored a steady supply of beans from the home company. A pilot, who is friends with the president of Tully's, stocks that brand. And he promotes it with a Tully's banner that hangs over the doorway to his bunker abode.
Alpha Company's focus on coffee amazes some of the Midwesterners recruited for a tour of duty in Iraq.
"I grew up on Folger's and didn't know what gourmet coffee was until I came here," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Shea, who is from Kansas.
And as a reserve unit, there is a casual feel to camp life. Though the rules are the same as the rest of the military in banning fraternization, some sleeping quarters are coed. Women often opt to bunk with their platoon rather than live apart. "I've been in this unit for 17 years, and it's like an extended family," said 45-year-old Correll.
Since most of the soldiers left family behind, their tents are filled with pictures of their wives and children. Only a scattering of pin-ups are posted by the single guys.
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Helicopters participate in a fly-over prior to the Jingle Rock Run on Christmas Eve at the military base in Balad, Iraq, where members of the Washington state Army Reserve's Alpha Company are stationed.|
To the south of the camp, a chain-link fence topped by razor-edged wire and dotted with guard towers delineates the boundaries of their world.
When they first arrived in May, there was a brief honeymoon of sorts. Back then, soldiers could venture off base to buy merchandise from friendly Iraqi vendors. That changed over the summer, when the resistance shelled the base so often it became an almost daily routine, and the attacks grew on convoys and patrols.
Alpha Company has not lost a soldier to hostile fire. But soldiers no longer venture off base unless it is required. "You used to be able to buy a carton of cigarettes off base for $5 when they were $26 at the base," said Sgt. 1st Class Gene Mash. "But now, it's worth the $26 to buy it on base."
For most soldiers of Alpha Company, their only contact with Iraqis is with the locals allowed to work on base or deliver supplies. The soldiers call them Hadji, a term that applies to someone who has completed a trip to Mecca, but at the base it does not necessarily denote respect.
And even with the capture earlier this month of Saddam, soldiers are not expecting a thaw in relations any time soon. "If anything, I think we've seen a little bit of a backlash. I'm not going to let down my guard," said Haugen, whose wife and two young daughters live in East King County.
Members of the unit are scheduled to leave Iraq in late March, a year after their arrival. In the meantime, their lives have settled into an uneasy routine work at night and sleep during the day.
Today, Christmas, they have the day off. They will meet early this morning in formation, where officers will announce awards and promotions, then head to a big tent for a pancake breakfast and a gift exchange. Later, they will send a representative to a golf tournament despite the slimy layer of mud that coats the landscape.
But for some before this holiday arrives there is work to do: a Christmas Eve mission flying above a land where peace on Earth is not yet at hand.
Hal Bernton: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas Hurst: email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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