Monday, August 17, 2009

Living On The Iraqi Frontier

By Tom Hewitt/UAF Journalism
Photos by Jennifer Canfield/UAF Journalism

COP COBRA, Iraq - “Ah yes, Cobra,” Maj. Chris Hyde said, laughing nervously and sucking air through his teeth. “It’s nice up there, really nice. But – how shall I say it – very austere.”

Austere was the right word. A lone soldier from the 1st Cavalry, 5th Squadron showed up to greet the arriving Blackhawk helicopters at the landing pad, and as he showed us to our quarters, he made no effort to hide either the plainness of Command Outpost Cobra or his affection for it.

“Sure, we don’t have a big mess hall here, or some of the other stuff they have at [Forward Operating Bases] Warhorse or Caldwell,” he said. “But I like it. We get our missions done, and it’s a little more relaxed than down at Caldwell. For one thing, there’s no Sergeant Major Greene up here.”

Soldiers at COP Cobra tended to speak of Sgt. Maj. Charles Greene, the squadron’s chief non-commissioned officer, with a mixture of mild resentment and respect. While several cited his absence as a reason they enjoy their stay at Cobra, they affectionately retold stories about Greene’s temper and his fondness for Diet Pepsi.

The soldier who greeted our helicopters wasn’t kidding about Cobra not having a big mess hall. While the dining facility at Warhorse had an overwhelming array of menu options, at Cobra there was only one choice: take it or leave it. There were no soldiers choosing the latter. Thankfully, the meal of the evening – spaghetti and meatballs with green beans and a roll – proved delicious. A nearby table held an open case of Pop-Tarts, presumably an alternative on nights when the food was less popular.

The men and women staffing COP Cobra may enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere, but they can turn it on and off like a switch. On a mission in the nearby town of Khanaqin the next day, the soldiers’ eyes darted back and forth as they walked through the half-empty market, looking down side streets and up to rooftops for harbingers of a coming attack. While Khanaqin has been calm for some time, the soldiers were visibly relieved when they finished the walk and got back into their waiting Stryker vehicles.

COP Cobra’s facilities ran from modest to extremely modest. A makeshift barbershop was set up one night in the corner of the laundry room. Only one set of electric clippers was in evidence, and a garbage bag stood in for a barber’s apron. Still, those waiting for a haircut were in good spirits, and one – equipped with an acoustic guitar – even indulged a request to play “Free Bird,” which he played flawlessly.

The only amenities on the outpost universally derided by its soldiers were the latrines. Even the bathroom at the squadron’s headquarters, widely considered the best at Cobra, only had one Western-style toilet, with the others little more than holes in the floor. In one stall, a folding chair leaned up against the wall with the seat cut out, in an effort to provide some measure of normalcy.
Despite the austerity, those stationed at Cobra find ways to import touches of luxury. The evening after the mission to Khanaqin, the squadron’s chaplain had a cookout, complete with steaks. “They won’t be the best steaks you’ve ever had,” warned Pvt. Joel Adams as we walked over to the grill, “But it’s a steak in Iraq.”

By the time the steaks were finished, the night was pitch dark. The soldiers stood outside the dining hall, smoking cigarettes and talking about home. Almost all of the soldiers were less than a month from the end of their deployment, and they held forth on the places they would go, the music they would buy, and the beer they would drink as soon as they got back to Fairbanks.

“What a night,” said Spc. Joel Adams as the cookout wound down, looking up at the night sky. “Feels almost like home.” The stars rose over the outpost, and the Big Dipper shone brightly, comforting and yet somehow out of place above the desert.

The next evening, Adams and Sgt. Christian Ozuna sat with me in the mess hall at FOB Caldwell for dinner after a convoy ride from Cobra. The two shared good-natured gripes about their housing. “We were supposed to get new housing units,” Adams said. “They talked about it for weeks and weeks, and then they gave them to 3-66 [Cavalry Regiment]. Always the way.”

“We have a mouse in our quarters, actually,” Adams continued. I volunteered that I had seen the rat poison set out in the corner of Cobra’s dining facility.

“Yeah,” Ozuna said, smiling and looking into the distance, “Those steaks last night sure were tasty, weren’t they?”

1 comment:

  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/18/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.