For U.S. soldiers, Christmas in Iraq can be tedious

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverDecember 23, 2010 

Col. Scottie D. Carpenter of Raleigh, N.C., 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.

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