DIYALA PROVINCE, Iraq — Perhaps the true mark of a good soldier is how well he can handle omnipresent boredom. Even with two wars, the military rarely delivers the action-packed moments advertised on recruiting posters.
One tanker currently stationed in Iraq, for example, recalled seeing a poster in the recruiter’s office of a tank jumping a ditch shooting another tank. Now that same tanker sits in on officer meetings and reports back to his unit.
As the war in Iraq winds down, soldiers are increasingly faced with more banal jobs and less hectic operation schedules than those during the height of the conflict.
There are swimming pools and movie theaters at large, central bases, but soldiers stationed far from these amenities are finding novel ways to make the time in between “missions” tick by a little quicker.
Here, put this apple on your head ...
When they’re not in Iraq, the soldiers of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team are stationed in Alaska. A number of them are avid outdoorsmen.
Not wanting to fall out of practice during their deployment, soldiers who were avid bow hunters at home brought bows and arrows with them to Iraq.
At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, they’ve built an archery range with plywood cutouts of elk and other animals.
“You come here to a place that’s all guns and bombs and here we are shooting bows and arrows that go back thousands of years,” says Staff Sgt. Kyler Johnson. “You get out there and you can forget about everything else that you’ve got going on — all the bad stuff at work, all the problems at home. You just go out there and shoot your bow. It’s nice be able to have that get away.”
One soldier is qualified to certify bow hunters, so those new to the sport can start pursuing big game as soon as they get off the plane back in Alaska.
Archery is a big enough hobby among deployed soldiers that one prominent bow company offers bows at substantial discounts to soldiers deployed overseas.
Holding the line
Perhaps more than anything else, pastimes for deployed soldiers are conceived as a way to feel at home in a foreign land.
For U.S. Army Capt. Kyle Davidson and Capt. Greg Canady that meant finding a way to fish.
While soldiers stationed at some of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad cast lines in the lakes there, when Davidson and Canady got news that they were deploying to Baquba they weren’t sure what they’d find, if anything.
But the two found a couple of small creeks passing through base in which they catch at least one fish each time they’re out. They say the fish — mostly catfish and carp — aren’t edible, but the experience of being alone with wildlife working a line is enough.
“One time we were walking back to the truck and we put the rods in the back and we were like, ‘This feels good,’ Davidson said. “It feels like you’re not here as much.”
More fun than a Humvee
“My girlfriend smacked me in the back of the head when I got back home. She couldn’t believe I spent $400 on an RC car,” says U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Rick McCown, a convert to remote control car racing since arriving in Iraq.
McCown first saw an elaborate track for remote control cars in 2004, when he visited Joint Base Balad, one of the largest U.S. bases in Iraq.
At the time such a hobby would have been an impossibility for a combat trooper like McCown. “There were guys with office jobs that could do this kind of stuff,” he says. “But we were on the road everyday, by the time I got done I sent an email and went to bed.”
But when his unit arrived at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, a medium-size facility about 60 miles north of Baghdad, for their tour that started late last year a group of soldiers decided to bring some of those large base amenities to their corner of Iraq.
Remembering the RC car racetrack in Balad, a group of soldiers in McCown’s 2-8 Field Artillery battalion got permission to turn an unused part of the base into an offroad course for gas-powered RC cars that they had shipped to Iraq.
The final product was the result of hours of online research and about a month of on-and-off volunteer labor. The course uses sandbags to define lanes, has jumps, and even an elevated platform for RC car operators to stand on as they navigate the track.
The hobby is not for the casual observer, however. Gas powered RC cars start around $400 and some soldiers have spent $1,500 to $2,000 on their cars. The vehicles also require constant maintenance and repair.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Iraq:
Iraq marks full sovereignty with a parade
Iraqi "independence day" arrives
In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings