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In Iraq, brigade members appreciate creature comforts

First Lt. Mason McCoy hopes for just one thing for Christmas: a bit more sleep.

McCoy, a member of the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade, said he and other members of Delta Company don’t lack for much at their home base in Balad, Iraq. They have the Internet and e-mail, packages from home, decent food in the dining hall and a chance to eat American fast-food on base.

But night convoy duty, which is what Delta Company has done since arriving in Iraq in November, does mess with his sleep patterns, he said. His unit doesn’t have a convoy scheduled out of Joint Base Balad on Dec. 25th.

“I’m going to sleep in on Christmas,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

Most days, the soldiers in Delta Company prefer being busy with convoy duty to being idle on the large military depot that funnels fuel, food, vehicle parts and other supplies around the region, said Capt. Tim Ozmer, McCoy’s boss. Today they’ll be fine with a day off.

“We kind of got lucky,” Ozmer said. “We don’t have a mission going out on Christmas Day.”

The Spokesman-Review reported on Inland Northwest soldiers in Delta and Hotel companies doing their final training at the Yakima Firing Range in August. They’re a part of nearly 3,500 soldiers from the 81st – 2,400 from Washington and 950 from California – called to active duty last spring. They had more training in Wisconsin, followed by training in Kuwait in October before arriving at about a dozen bases around Iraq in November.

The brigade is doing its second tour in Iraq, and Ozmer said this one has been far different from the first, when they were in tanks, armored vehicles and Humvees at the height of the insurgency. So far, the 81st has not suffered a fatality or a serious combat-related injury, Lt. Keith Kosik said last week.

“There’s certainly still conflict going on,” Ozmer said. “But it’s a much more stable environment. It’s a much safer environment.”

For this tour of duty, the 81st left its tanks and heavy armor back in Washington, and operates newer Humvees and the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. Units from the 81st can be found in Ramadi, Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, as well as Balad, Kosik said. Some are assigned to base security, while others protect convoys like Delta Company and another Spokane-based unit, Hotel Company, also in Balad.

“Joint Base Balad is very difficult to describe,” Capt. Clay Colliton, a former Ferris High School teacher who commands Hotel Company, wrote in an e-mail. “At times you feel as if you are on a military installation back in the United States. Post exchanges, swimming pools, Taco Bell, Burger King, laundry service, education centers … pretty much garrison surroundings, except for the fact that occasionally stuff falls out of the sky and blows up.”

The convoys travel mostly at night, Ozmer said. Part of the reason is security, but part of it is because there’s less civilian traffic at night than during the day.

“Stuff moves in here and we move it on,” Sgt. 1st Class Chris Fresh said. “Fuel, food, water, parts, mail. It’s just another link in the chain.”

Fresh, a Coeur d’Alene resident who’s a Kootenai County deputy sheriff in civilian life, is on his third tour in Iraq and thinks the accommodations this time are by far the best. He spent the first tour on the front of a tank and the second sleeping some nights in a truck.

“I’m happy with a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in,” he said. They have phones, office space, hot showers most days and “the dining facility is as good as it can be. What we have is prime real estate.”

McCoy agreed: “We have communications, we have creature comforts. We have guys over here who have Internet in their rooms.”

One of the hardest things for the first-timers to learn is to sleep when they can, Fresh said. When they don’t have a mission, they get caught up in the sights and sounds of their new surroundings and don’t sleep during the day like he tells them. It catches up with them the next night.

For McCoy, a Pullman resident on his first tour in Iraq, one of the biggest adjustments has been the Iraqi drivers, who sometimes drive the opposite way down a divided highway if it has less traffic.

“We’re the only ones who even consider obeying the traffic laws,” he said.

Family and friends back home tend to fill in any gaps in comforts with care packages. They’ve received stockings from the Family Readiness Group in Spokane with phone cards, disposable cameras, cookies, cakes and candies, Colliton said. They know they have support back home.

During a recent trip to the mail center, a unit with 60 members had 65 packages to be picked up, Ozmer said. Photographs and a letter from home are usually what they need, more than supplies.

Fresh said the coolest thing he’s received recently might surprise people. He opened a package from his mother to find an everyday towel, washed and dried with fabric softener, and vacuum-sealed. Laundry service at Joint Base Balad isn’t anything like mom’s laundry back home, he said.

“To me, it’s the simple things like that,” Fresh said.

Last night, Colliton sent the soldiers in his company a note with holiday wishes, compliments for a job well done thus far, a prayer and a reminder that even if they are away from home for the first time on Christmas, they can take solace in the fact that they are with their military family.

“Just my way of saying good job … enjoy the moment … the moment is over, now get back to work,” he said.

Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or by e-mail at

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