OTL: Two Beers In The Desert

imageAGHDAD -- It looks almost like a college dorm room, decorated in the classic early frat guy motif, with two messy beds, Red Man and Copenhagen on the table, tubs of weightlifting supplements, and the Sistine Chapel of testosterone -- a collage of almost-naked women covering most of a wall. There's a fridge, an Xbox and three dudes watching MTV. Yeah, a normal college dorm.

Only, it's Iraqi MTV, and there's body armor under the entertainment center, weapon clips on the floor, an M-4 rifle on one of the beds, another leaning up against the wall. The three guys are part of a colonel's security detail, and they spend most days outside the wire of Camp Falcon. Any of them probably could kill you with one of the girlie magazines lying around. In between critiquing the videos, they're talking about the hottest topic on this forward operating base in south Baghdad: the Super Bowl and the two beers.

Kyle Slucter
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
A Michigan native and Detroit fan, Sgt. Kyle Slucter is spreading Lions pride throughout the Middle East.

All sorts of rumors have sprung up here since the Army announced that each soldier in Iraq would get two beers -- and two beers only -- during Super Bowl XLIII, a rare break from the no-alcohol-in-a-war-zone policy. While people at home fixate about the game, troops in Iraq talk about the beer. Is it good? Will they actually get it? Where is this beer hidden? One whisper has it with the ammo. These guys, who are members of the hard-charging 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, joke about staging a midnight commando raid. Covert ops, baby. One says he's going to mix the beer with an energy drink, a Baghdad Jagerbomb. The anticipation is palpable.

"I already got a plan," Staff Sgt. Rick Valencia cracks. "I'm shotgunning 'em."

The other guys laugh.

"If you drink 'em too slow, they're gonna go to waste," Valencia says. "You gotta take 'em straight to the head." When he's not chillaxing, Valencia is an experienced, respected noncommissioned officer, a member of the exclusive Audie Murphy Club, named after the Medal of Honor winner.

From his bed, Sgt. Kyle Slucter asks what kind of beer they'll be getting.

"Budweiser," Valencia and fellow Staff Sgt. Jason Cosby call out in unison.

"When we were out on a mission, the general was in town, and I asked his aide," Valencia explains.

"I heard they ordered 9,000 cases," Cosby says.

"King of Beers," Valencia says.

"I don't care if it was Milwaukee's Best," Slucter says.

"Or Blue Ribbon," Cosby says.

Then the Pussycat Dolls come on the television, and everyone gets quiet.

A history of war, told through the eyes of its beverages

This has been a war of uppers. A coffee drink sold on all the bases in Iraq is called MOAC: Mother of All Coffees. It has enough caffeine in each cup to power the crew of a battleship. There's no decaf in plain sight in the chow hall, just two pots marked "Strong" and "Light." Energy drinks are a way of life. The Humvees and armored trucks rolling through the dusty Forward Operating Base Falcon early this Sunday morning, passing concrete blast walls and two stray dogs, are packed with troopers whose opinion of an impending mission, so the chatter goes, can be measured with astonishing accuracy by seeing what they drink before leaving. Coffee means a walk in the park. Rip It means a little more serious. If they're pounding Monster, they're expecting a Hollywood action movie. "The Vietnam era guys had hookers, booze and drugs," one Falcon resident says. "We have coffee."

Rick Valencia, Kyle Slucter
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
Staff Sgt. Rick Valencia, left, and Slucter get a little extra fuel from caffeine.

For most of the war, Camp Falcon needed to be hyper-alert. The place has been a magnet for mortar and rocket attacks, the neighborhoods outside the walls a swamp of sectarian violence. But in the past months, thanks to an agreement to hand over many operations to the Iraqis, and the costly but effective surge, the days and nights have been as calm as they've been in years. Life inside gets more garrisonized every day. Mealtimes feel like the ones back home, with omelet chefs, a carving station and, naturally, big televisions showing cable news and sporting events. The gym has packed treadmills, and the dusty sports field has flag football. Karaoke nights are a regular feature of the base's social scene. There is no tension in the air, and that means one thing:


For the first time here, a beverage will help them unwind rather than jack them up. This small break from the normal routine has been received by the soldiers, as you might imagine, as if they'd been told the newest front of the war on terror was South Padre Island. For a change, the entire camp is anticipating something other than combat, or going home, or shipping out to Afghanistan.

Camp Falcon has Super Bowl fever.

A much-needed release

Behind the door stenciled "Platoon Sergeant," the biggest Steelers fan on post is nearly frothing at the mouth. If the game doesn't start soon, Sgt. 1st Class Randy Williams is going to explode. "I've been nervous since the last game," he says. The soldiers who serve under him at the 1st Battalion-22nd Infantry Regiment are giving him tons of grief. It's a Sunday, and everybody's hanging out, having a good time. The tales are flying. "It's what guys who are in Iraq do," Sgt. Brett Bussell says. "Tell stories about growing up and their family."

Much of the talk is about the upcoming game, of course. Williams, a 38-year-old burly, bald Army lifer, announces he wants a winter home in the Pittsburgh area when he retires. Bussell rolls his eyes. "See what I mean?" he says.

"Don't ever say anything bad about the Steelers," Spec. Scott Stone says.

"I hope they win," Bussell says.

"Me, too," Stone says.

"If they don't, the rest of this rotation will be horrible," Bussell says.

Randy Williams
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
Sgt. 1st Class Randy Williams keeps a close watch on the NFL standings ... and the playoff progress of his beloved Steelers.

This game is a much-needed release for Williams and his staff, who are in charge of all communications for the regiment. It's a vital job -- people can die if they don't do it right -- and there is seldom a breather. "It's rough working 24-7, 365," Williams says. "It gets monotonous."

In most offices, they'd be The Man. Here, they're POGs (short for "person other than grunt" and pronounced like the Irish rock band). That's what the combat troops call the dudes who work behind desks. It's not meant to be nice. There are small signs that these guys know the stereotype. For instance, the flavor-of-the-month video game on post right now is "Call of Duty 4," a combat shoot 'em up. When the guys who go outside the wire talk about the game, they laugh at getting smoked by 12-year-old kids playing online. (During one game, soldiers list the greatest hits of things they've told children over the headset, such as "Carry your little a-- to school" and "Isn't this rated M for mature?") When guys who sit behind a desk talk about it, there's some slightly self-conscious bragging, as if being good at a soldier video game validates that they are, in fact, soldiers. "That's what we do every day," Bussell says. "It makes it easy to kick the s--- out of a bunch of 12-year-olds."

The truth is, though, these guys work harder than just about anyone you know. Not leaving the post takes away most danger but also takes away the accompanying adrenaline rush, making every day seem almost exactly the same, the drab perimeter of the small base closing in. Everything is sandy brown -- the guard towers, the walls, the desert, the clothes, the tents, the buildings, the Humvees and the tanks and the trucks, even the sky sometimes, all the way out to the horizon. A soldier can go stir-crazy on one of these bases. They need this Super Bowl and these beers. They need 'em badly. For a few hours, they'll be someplace else, someplace familiar. The taste of the beer and the sounds of the game will take them there.

"You have a time to disconnect yourself," Williams says.

"Maybe daydream," Bussell says. "A feeling of not being away from home and family for so long."

Amazing how something so simple can energize so many people. The menu already has been e-mailed around the base. Sports-bar food: chicken wings, pizza, jalapeno poppers, mozzarella sticks, beer-battered onion rings. And, of course, the two cold ones. They've heard one of their higher-ups will make everyone sign for the beers, make them drink them inside the dining building and turn in the cans afterward. No funny business. Doesn't matter.

"You wanna see some s---," Bussell says, "go to the chow hall when all the beer s--- goes down. It's gonna be wild. ... It's gonna be f---ing crazy."

"We already got people saying, 'How can we get a beer bong in there?'" Stone says.

"We got so much equipment here," Bussell says, "we could make a helluva beer bong."

Stone reminds everyone he has a big day coming up. His tour is almost up. "I'm gonna go home in two weeks," he says. "I'll drink then."

"Screw you," another soldier spits out.

Williams has been listening. He says he's not going to have the beers. Too focused on the game. The tension is killing him. "It's gonna be a long week," he says.

Desperately seeking Jessica Simpson

David Hill
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Seaman, left, and Lt. Col. David Hill proudly tout their allegiance to the Steelers.

Across the base, Lt. Col. David Hill, a West Point graduate and Pittsburgh area native, sits next to his gigantic desk. He's the officer in charge of the 1st Special Troops Battalion, and over his shoulder is a gigantic map of the city of Baghdad. His men patrol an area the size of Orlando. Below the big map are smaller ones outlining the water and sewage systems. Most of his work focuses on rebuilding, and he attends meetings every Monday with local officials, meetings for which he's always a bit tired after staying up late watching Steelers games. On the adjacent walls, he has hung a Steelers flag, as well as the jerseys of Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward. He was in Iraq in 2006 when Pittsburgh won its last Super Bowl.

"I'm sensing a disturbing trend," he says, smiling.

He plans to watch the game in his command center -- missions will continue -- but likely will make an appearance at the chow hall. Needs to show his face, just to check on his guys. There could be shenanigans afoot. Once, he says, Jessica Simpson came to a base in the region, and the guys spent all day doing recon, trying to find out where she was being hidden. "We're sure soldiers are doing the same thing with the beer, scouting it out," he says.

This year has been a culmination for Hill; he has been able to see American efforts finally paying off, with a drastic reduction in violence. There's something else happening this week: provincial elections. If they come off smoothly, after many false starts, the nation could be on the right track. He hopes the recent peace sticks. "You always hold your breath."

Hill family
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
When his family is watching the Super Bowl back in Pennsylvania, Hill will feel the distance between them. "I know what they'll be doing. It would be incredible to be there with them," he says.

This past fall, as change swept the Baghdad area, football was helpful to the soldiers under his command. Time goes faster during the season, he says, a rhythm rising and falling from week to week, momentum to spice up the stagnant days. "It's a thing that guys enjoy talking about the day after, and looking forward to the next week," he says. "It really does help the time go by."

It has been important to him. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the glory days of Steelers football, he remembers the excitement that would start building a week out, a buzz he's feeling again. It was all the kids talked about in school. He still remembers the name of the one guy in his class who pulled for the Cowboys: Preston Morton. On game day, the Hill family went to Aunt Dorothy's house, full of family and food. This week has taken him back to that place, a warm memory, a time before battlefields and reconstruction.

It takes him someplace else, too. His three children like the team, despite growing up near Fort Hood, Texas. He's proud of that. His 9-year-old, Nick, has particularly enjoyed this season. Hill and Nick talk about the Steelers and the games, and it connects them. Hill was Nick's age when he'd go to Aunt Dorothy's, and he can imagine exactly what Nick is feeling, can imagine his entire family crowded around a television … without him. "It does make you miss it," he says. "I know what they'll be doing. It would be incredible to be there with them."

The Super Bowl takes soldiers back home, sure, but it also can remind them that home is very far away.

Camp Falcon
Getty Images
Forward Operating Base Falcon is located near Baghdad, just a few miles from the Green Zone.

Half sniper, half sipper

Staff Sgt. Brandon Holland, with the famous patch of the 82nd Airborne on his shoulder, plans to sip his two beers. Nice and easy, he'll take his time and relax, the cold liquid going down his throat. He smiles and leans back on the picnic table at the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment compound, the Wilkesboro, N.C., accent thick in his voice. "You never forget the taste of beer," he says.

Five years ago, Holland got his Iraq baptism in Fallujah. The first three nights there, he slept in a tent, mortars dropping all around, helpless, hoping one wouldn't land on top of him. Finally, he went to sleep. If he died, he died. "That's when I realized I'm not in North Carolina anymore," he says. "Here you go. You signed on the dotted line, and you got all you asked for."

Later, he worked as a sniper. He was raised a Christian, and a man has to make some hard decisions with a scope fixed on someone's head. You can see his chest moving in and out, each breath potentially his last, and you're the one who'll decide. But he did his job, made his mother and father proud. "I hate people when they ask, 'Have you ever killed anybody?'" he says. "That's none of your business. I've had to do my job. Who would ask that question?"

When Holland returned for this tour, he found a different place. They're trying to teach the Iraqis to do the peacekeeping work, focusing more on training than on street fighting. It has been a hard adjustment -- you don't just turn it off -- but a welcome one. "I'm so glad I'm not having to shoot people," he says. "I'm tired of shooting people. I don't want to shoot anybody else."

This week, he has his fingers crossed that nothing will mess up the plans for the beers and the game. Let other dudes shotgun. Maybe once he'd have done that, too. Now, he says, he's gonna sip. "You're not gonna get drunk with two beers anyway."

When this tour is up, he probably will end up in Afghanistan in the middle of the muck. His unit doesn't build nations; they tear down doors. Many more battles are in his future, but that's for later.

"This time," he says, "we're gonna drink some beers and watch the Super Bowl."

Nicholas Kocher
Courtesy of the Kocher family
Pfc. Nicholas Kocher joined the Army right out of high school and then graduated from the elite Ranger School.

Waiting for action

Pfc. Nicholas Kocher is sitting at the same picnic table. He's too young to have beer in the States, but in a combat zone, the brass will make an exception. Kocher arrived in December and has never been overseas for a Super Bowl. He has had a hard time getting into all the hype that came so easily back home in Harrison, Ohio. "It doesn't really feel like it," he says.

Like Holland, he's a member of the 1-505. He joined right out of high school, talking to recruiters as early as his freshman year, watching "Black Hawk Down" and "Saving Private Ryan," dreaming of being a brave soldier. He got his jump wings, then graduated from the elite Ranger School. He wears that badge proudly. He's a doer; in his spare time, he's taking computer French lessons. Back in Ohio, his dad is beefing up his black '86 Chevy pickup, new suspension and tires. Kocher can't wait to see it.

He doesn't have Holland's scars. Not yet. He is earnest, in the best definition of the word, and is careful with his words. For generations, America has produced young men like him.

"We can't really say what we do," Kocher says a bit sheepishly.

He has been here two months and hasn't been engaged. He might be baby-faced, but he's a trained soldier and believes he'll react with courage and honor when his time comes. He wants some contact, wants to fight for his country. Let's get it on. "Ready to go kick in a door," he says, "and we're here walking, giving kids soccer balls."

Kocher says the scouts they replaced didn't get shot at and didn't fire a single shot. This isn't what he imagined. "It's gonna feel weird going back and telling people what you did," he says. "They might be puzzled that we were in Iraq in a war zone and no shots were fired."

Rick Valencia, Kyle Slucter
Courtesy of Justin Carmack and U.S. Army
Valencia, left, and Slucter are looking forward to a trip home soon. "When the Super Bowl comes, that's just another week down," Valencia says.

"God, I wish I was home"

The Cavalry guys, Valencia and the rest, are still watching the videos, still talking about the beer. Down the hall in the lobby, there's a gigantic buffalo statue that someone in the unit bought in the Kmart parking lot back at Fort Hood, then crated it up and brought it here. That's how they roll, and getting a photo with the buffalo has become a favorite souvenir for folks stationed at Camp Falcon. An officer walks by, looks at the statue and points toward the hindquarters.

"Got big balls, too," he says.

The guys in Valencia's room are explaining the finer points of life on patrol. Iraqi kids, for instance, love Shakira. Video games? "Most of the guys playing that s--- are POGs sitting behind a desk."

A familiar noise comes from the television. It's the video they've been waiting for. The song sucks, but there are a lot of smoking hot women in it dancing in skimpy soccer uniforms. "This is the best video in Iraq," Slucter says.

Valencia bows toward the screen. We're not worthy.

The video is, truly, spectacular. When it's over, the talk continues. An officer, Capt. Jeffrey Bryan, a former West Point lacrosse star, sticks his head in. "Captain America," Valencia calls out, with obvious affection. There's talk of Bryan going to Harvard, and that's just about more than Valencia can stand. He's thrilled.

"I know a guy who goes to Harvard!" he says.

"If I get in," Bryan says.

"You'll get in," Valencia says.

Men come and go. There's an attack drill, with the sirens blaring and a voice announcing "incoming." Soldiers stop by to report they are alive. Maybe the impending elections have some commanders nervous.

Valencia thinks about game day and what he'd be doing back in Texas, with all the fellas over at his house, burgers on the grill, beers on ice, baked beans, fajitas, everything. He always liked to do it up big for company. They'd watch the flat-screen and get a little drunk, maybe go shoot some pool afterward. "God," he says, "I wish I was home."

They have a little more than a month left, and anticipating the game and the beers have made that time move a little faster. They'll be on patrol again soon, after the elections, watching their backs, doing their jobs outside the wire.

"As long as everybody stays safe, I'm totally happy," Valencia says. "When the Super Bowl comes, that's just another week down. It's a countdown until we get to go home."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. Special thanks to Maj. David Olson, Sgt. 1st Class Brent Williams and Justin Carmack.

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