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167th details duty in desert

April 25, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Life for local soldiers in the Middle Eastern desert consists of a lot of thoughts of home and loved ones, downtime spent playing sports or cards and a never-ending battle fighting dust.

Some amenities, though, were not left stateside.

"I probably shouldn't tell you this, but we have Baskin & Robbins ice cream for dessert," said Maj. Stu Brown, 35, one of four members of the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing who spoke to reporters using a telephone speakerphone system Thursday morning.

Brown is a pilot with the Airlift Wing. Also participating in the interview were Tech Sgt. Rich Reader, 37, a maintenance worker from New Market, Md.; Staff Sgt. Chris Harding, 24, of Martinsburg, also with maintenance; and Master Sgt. Mark Phaneuf, a loadmaster from Berryville, Va.

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For half an hour, the men answered questions about life in the desert, what they miss from home and the war in Iraq, among other topics.

Because of security concerns, some questions could not be answered, including their exact location, details of their missions and how many other soldiers are with them.

A typical day for the soldiers begins at 6:30 a.m., the start of a 12-hour shift. Maintenance workers check over the planes and fix any necessary problems, ensuring they are mission-ready.

Flight crews could be alerted at any time for a morning, afternoon or night mission. Once alerted, the crew has 45 minutes to get ready. Starting with the alert time, a normal flight will last 15 to 19 hours, one of the men said.

All of the men agreed they are looking forward to coming back to their families, with Brown adding that his father, who has been looking after his farm, probably has some chores lined up for him.

Harding plans to avoid certain parts of the country.

"I'm not going anywhere near sand for a while," he said.

Since leaving in early March, adjusting to life in the desert meant adopting a flexible attitude, Brown said. Sometimes staying in touch with loved ones back home is difficult if the computers are all taken and there's a line to use a "morale phone."

For Reader, an adjustment involved the climate.

"Getting used to the heat. The intake of water here is amazing; just what you have to do to stay functional," Reader said.

Although hot days are not an anomaly in this area, nothing compares to the weather in the desert, Reader said.

At night, a breeze accompanying a 93-degree temperature is welcome.

"Everybody's happy because that's cool," Reader said.

"I'd like to take a shower without sweating," Phaneuf said, adding later, "There's a constant film of dirt on your body."

Although the desert has sand, it does not compare to, say, Ocean City, Md.

"The beach and the desert are two completely different things," Harding said. "(The desert is) mostly rocks. It's a lot of dust."

Brown classified the camp's dining facility as "outstanding" just before making his ice cream confession.

"They're doing a pretty good job with accommodating us," Harding said in agreement.

When not working, soldiers read, do laundry or catch up on sleep. Some take advantage of a recreation center and workout equipment. Horseshoes and volleyball tournaments are popular, and movies are available, the soldiers said.

Others have made modifications, including adding porches, to their tents, which were in place when the group arrived. Each soldier in the eight-man tents has a bed and a wire shelf to hold belongings, according to an e-mail from First Lt. Eric Widmeyer, also with the 167th.

On one tent, someone painted a perfect replica of an Interstate 81 sign, under which another perfect replica of a green road sign read "Martinsburg, 7,446 miles."

Listed as being with the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing, the local troops said they also are serving with fellow members of the 167th. Everyone gets along, which helps with morale, Harding said.

"Personally, I don't think you could have brought a better group of guys over here," he said.

At the dining facility, soldiers can watch cable news and keep up to date on what's happening. As for Jessica Lynch, the ex-POW from West Virginia rescued from Iraq, Brown said several articles were mailed to troops.

"I think it all meant something to us, the fact that she was a West Virginia native," he said.

When the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled, Reader said that although he was in the back of a facility, he knew something had occurred.

"(There were) major tears and clapping and yelling when that happened," he said.

One of the high points for Phaneuf was when seven American POWs were rescued. At a forward location, Phaneuf said he saw the POWs and initially thought he and fellow crew members were going to transport them out.

"They were hauled by the airplane next to us," Phaneuf said.

Seeing those soldiers free was "awesome," he said.

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