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Weekend Pass

Downtime in Anbar Province

Adam Allington

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(Adam Allington)
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Anbar Province, in western Iraq, used to be the site of some of the worst violence in that country. Soldiers referred to the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi as "the wild west."

In recent months, the threat level in Anbar has dropped significantly, ever since an event called the "Anbar Awakening." During this time the region's Sunni Sheiks broke from Al Qaeda and aligned their tribes with coalition forces. It's still dangerous, but many soldiers have noted that jobs, which used to guarantee a firefight, now go off without a hitch.

In fact, even their downtime activities have changed: Video game sales are way up. There are more pick-up football games. Some grunts even have the opportunity to shop in Iraqi markets.

On base, everyone carries a weapon. That's a rule. You take it with you to the chow hall, to the gym. But, these days in Ramadi, most grunts get more use out of the imaginary guns on their gaming systems then the real deal.

In a converted Iraqi Republican Guard barracks, Sergeant David Carr and several of his buddies are huddled around a hard-to-find Nintendo Wii.

"We play it when we get off of work almost every night," Carr says.

The real tools of war are spread around the room, automatic weapons propped in corners, grenade launchers and pistols placed carefully like the delicate chotcka of some Special Forces grandmother.

At the moment however, Carr isn't playing a shoot-em-up game. Right now he's got something a little more relaxing, "Hooked! Real Motion Fishing."

"It's basically just Bass tournaments and just different relaxing fishing games, which is usually what I do when I'm in the States, which is go out and fish. And I can't do that because we have nothing but sand."

Actually, Ramadi straddles the Euphrates River, but fishing isn't an option since soldiers are not allowed to leave base except on missions.

"So I do it on the Wii 'cause I actually get to cast the rod, real the fish in and actually hook the fish. It kind of makes me feel like I'm at home," Carr explains.

Life for U.S. soldiers in Ramadi has changed dramatically over the last few years. And that change is reflected in the way they spend their downtime. Earlier in the war, off-duty time at Camp Ramadi was largely a way to blow off steam and escape the realities of war.

Now, in the absence of a clear and visible enemy, boredom and monotony have become a threat of their own. As Anbar Province has settled, the missions themselves have also changed, becoming more relaxed.

Now, the job of a soldier can be as much about polite conversation and sipping hot tea, as it is about kicking down doors and dodging sniper fire.

"The problems can be solved with words instead of with violence," says Staff Sergeant Mark Hammerbacher.

Hammerbacher and his team routinely visit the home of Sheik Raad Sabah Alwani, an influential Sunni leader in Ramadi. Over a steady stream of chai and cigarettes, they talk about a range of issues from electricity to a dispute between a police captain and a local doctor.

On the surface, it looks just like hanging out, but Hammerbacher says more actual work gets done in these meetings then at any point earlier in the war.

The peaceful atmosphere off base has also translated to a more relaxed situation on base.

"Well you know there's the constant croquet tournaments, you know some of the mixers, actually there's nothing like that," says Staff Sgt. Eric Beckman.

Eric Beckman is a tall, lanky 24-year-old. He joined the reserves when he was just 17. On his last tour he was blown out of the top turret of his humvee, breaking his arm in the process.

Some soldiers say they miss being shot at. They miss the excitement. But, for his part, Beckman says he's just fine with the calmer routine both in and outside the wire. "Mainly we just hang out.

"We've built ourselves a pretty nice deck, so a lot of times we'll just hang with my team and some of the Marines that we live by. We really just hang out, tell lies to each other and pass the time."

Gathering for meals in the chow hall is a big part of soldiers' free time. Food is a crucial part of helping soldiers deal with the stress of combat or separation from families. And the food at Camp Ramadi is not bad.

Still, Staff Sergeant Elizabeth Callahan says all the comfort food in the world won't make you forget that you're in Iraq. She says all that buffet food reminds her of something else: "The bad Chinese restaurant that always gives you the craps afterwards that you never want to go to."

Callahan tries to avoid the chow hall as much as possible because the less she's there the less she thinks of home.

While Ramadi may be relatively safe now, other parts of the country are still experiencing the daily routine of IEDs, suicide bombings and panic. Soldiers have a name for that kind of environment. They call it 'kinetic.'

For now, here in Anbar, all that seems far away. Sergeant Clyde Rhodes and has buddies have improvised a driving range of sorts where the tee box actually sits on top of earthen blast walls built to protect their barracks from incoming. "Looking out, there is a berm about 75 meters out," Rhoades says, "and then on the other side of that berm is Iraq outside of the base camp control."

But when they hit a golf ball over the berm, its gone. "We can write to our command and they send more golf balls down to us on a regular basis," Rhoades explains.

Following a tee-shot several hundred miles straight east of Ramadi you would land in Baghdad or Diyala Province, where the sound of explosions and gunfire is still the norm.

Most of the soldiers who I spoke with in Ramadi are reservists, currently deployed on their second or third tours. There's talk that they might possibly be redeployed somewhere else…to a place where the simple pleasure of hitting golf balls over a berm are a distant memory.

More stories from our Weekend Pass series

Comments

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  • By sue baldwin

    From gansevoort, NY, 02/25/2008

    In Ramadi, it depends on the day. My son tells me there are days when you could run down the street naked and then there are days when you have to be in full armor. As a Marine in his final month of deployment, he said the Al Qaeda is just lying in wait for our troops to leave. There is still sniper fire and truck bombs still try to get through the ECP. It is not the picnic that is being portrayed.

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