Christmas in Iraq: tedious

A reserve officer faces his 4th Christmas there

STAFF WRITERDecember 23, 2010 

Col. Scottie D. Carpenter of Raleigh and the other 48,000 U.S. troops who will be in Iraq for Christmas are all but invisible back home.

According to the Pew Research Center, just 4 percent of stories in the U.S. media now are about Afghanistan. And Iraq? Not even 1 percent.

"War fatigue," say the experts, citing a public that's just tired of hearing about the conflicts. Also to blame is the money crunch at media companies, which have sharply cut staff in those expensive war-zone bureaus.

Carpenter, though, is there. So are hundreds of other reserve troops from North Carolina, including more than 200 members of the N.C. National Guard. Which means a hard holiday for them and for thousands of wives, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and civilian employers here.

Christmas away is almost routine for Carpenter, who has missed four now while deployed overseas.

He is an SBI agent in civilian life but has served multiple deployments. He is part way through one of the longest active-duty stints of any American reservist: He has been away from his job since August 2008, because the Army needs his expertise in moving vast amounts of supplies.

Carpenter, 51, agreed to talk about what the holiday season is like in a forgotten war zone. He spoke in a telephone interview Wednesday from Joint Base Balad, about 75 miles north of Baghdad.

It's one of many large U.S. bases in both war zones and could have been stamped out by the same giant cookie cutter. Life scarcely differs from one to the other, from Afghanistan to Iraq.

The bases are collections of tiny, prefabricated "CHUs" - containerized housing units - in dense rows, lined up along roads of dirt and gravel or, if the troops are lucky, dusty pavement. There are always a few warehouse-size dining halls, often with the same two-serving lines design, that dish up almost the same food whether you are in Baghdad or Kandahar. There's always at least one exercise building and a PX that sells toiletries and things like TVs and DVDs to pass the time and a surprising variety of beef jerky, caffeine-laced soft drinks and other "lickies and chewies."

It's a life of extraordinary tedium, particularly for the support troops who seldom or never leave the base.Many, including Carpenter, work 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, their days relieved only slightly by workouts and meals.

"I have work friends, I have workout friends and then I've got DFAC (dining facility) friends," Carpenter said. "Every body is kind of regimented and they get on their routines and get stuck, so you eat at the same time and see the same people and end up sitting by them. So, I have friends I only see at the DFAC, or when I'm working out."

Mixing it up

Balad is large enough that it has several dining halls, and Carpenter usually goes to the two that are closest.

He tries to mix it up by eating at DFAC 2 for some meals and DFAC 1 for others.

"It's the same food, but at least prepared by different people," he said.

The food is good, he said, but with a menu that repeats itself every seven days, it wears on you.

Carpenter is an upbeat type, and even sees the good side of so little media attention on Iraq. It's one more sign, he said, of how much things have improved there.

As the chief of staff of the 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, he's a member of the senior leadership of the unit responsible for moving all supplies around Iraq. There are more than 5,000 soldiers in the unit, and it oversees about 6,000 civilian contractors.

Before deploying, he served at a Florida base as the acting commander of a unit doing the same work in Afghanistan. The Army must have liked what he was doing.

When that job was done, he had orders for this current assignment before he could go back to civilian life.

It's not sexy work. There will be no movies made about sustainment, as its called. But without supplies, the military can't function.

Still, Carpenter said, he's happy to be doing it and happy that his bosses back in Raleigh strongly support what he's doing so he doesn't have to worry about his civilian job waiting for him when he gets home this spring.

Despite his absence, Carpenter and his family have much to be thankful for.

He married another soldier, a JAG officer, just two months ago while on R&R. He just completed 30 years of reserve service.

'He's going to be fine'

And, he almost doesn't mention it, but his son is a Marine in Afghanistan and, five days ago, an improvised bomb hit his light armored vehicle. Cpl. Wesley Carpenter escaped with a bad concussion, and is recovering at a hospital in Afghanistan.

"He's going to be fine, but its tough," Carpenter said.

Christmas deployed, he said, actually gets easier after a couple of times. You know what to expect, and you just get patient. The dining halls put up decorations, the USO sends a few more celebrities around, and the soldiers look out for each other. Each has a formal battle buddy to watch for problems like depression.

And with that, one of America's longest-serving reservists had to end the interview. It was 8 p.m. and time to trudge back to his CHU, watch a DVD, maybe thumb through a book, and then call it another long day.

"Then tomorrow," he said, "I'll get back up and do it again."

But in a couple of days, at least there will be turkey and ham and dressing. At DFAC 1 and DFAC 2.

Carpenter knows that for a fact: His unit trucked in the food.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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