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Story filed 4-14-05

Troops Unwind With Music, Sports


By Edward Lee Pitts
Military Affairs

CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq -- On an orange "I-Rocky Top" stage shaped like a giant T, country singer Charlie Daniels and his band saluted 278th Regimental Combat Team soldiers by playing some of their favorite songs with a twist.

The crowd of mostly Tennessee guardsmen roared when "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" became "The Devil Went Down to Iraq."

During the nearly hourlong performance, the Charlie Daniels Band gave the soldiers a slice of Tennessee and an update on football recruiting for the Tennessee Volunteers. After the concert, soldiers lined up as Mr. Daniels autographed everything from guitars to Kevlar helmets.

Staged entertainment is just one of the ways soldiers pass the time on a military base they can leave only during missions. Nearing their fifth month overseas and fourth month in Iraq, the soldiers are finding ways to enjoy themselves despite being thousands of miles from home.

Maj. Jack Coleman, who oversees morale, welfare and recreational activities from the regiment's personnel office, said planners try to give soldiers a chance to participate in activities they normally do at home.

"We want them to be themselves," he said. "They are getting a little closer to home when they get to take off this uniform."

Maj. Coleman said the camaraderie that develops when soldiers have fun together also pays off on the battlefield.

FROM BOXING TO BASKETBALL

At Forward Operating Base Cobra, the regiment's 3rd Squadron masses around a makeshift ring once a month for the popular Friday night fights.

Soldiers put on headgear and boxing gloves and give themselves nicknames such as "The Boston Bonebreaker" or "The Ragin' Cajun" before taking turns pummeling one another for three rounds. Sometimes the more unequal matches do not last long, and bloody noses are a common sight. But the unit's medics stay ringside, and each match is refereed by Staff Sgt. Melvin Brown, a licensed boxing official from Nashville.

"That is the first time I've seen some of my guys smile," said Sgt. Maj. Jim Kyle, the squadron's top enlisted soldier, on a recent fight night. "I saw stress relief today."

Forward Operating Base Bernstein, where the regiment's 2nd Squadron resides, offers a driving range for golfers. But the 278th camp offering by far the most recreation is Camp Caldwell, home of 1st Squadron, Support Squadron and Regimental headquarters. Its organized activities calendar rivals that of a cruise ship, a summer camp or a retirement home.

Soldiers here can participate in leagues for basketball and in volleyball, softball, horseshoes and dodgeball tournaments. At least two organized activities and countless spontaneous card games, board games or video games are available each night.

Sgt. Rick Poore, 40, of Tazewell, Tenn., stood on crutches one night this week and watched his basketball team warm up for the evening's game.

"This gives you something to look forward to every night instead of just sitting around and watching television," said Sgt. Poore, who sprained an ankle in a game and now must be satisfied in his role as coach and cheerleader.

Spc. Christopher Kain, 25, of Nashville, who plays dodgeball, volleyball, softball and basketball, said that without the sports options his days here would seem much longer.

"The real games don't come on the TV until late at night here, so you can't watch them," he said. "So you might as well play. There isn't anything else to do."

By the time the basketball game began, about a dozen spectators had gathered around the chain-link fence to watch the action. The basketball league runs from 6-10 p.m. two nights a week and includes a 14-game schedule. As players shuffle up and down the court, it is clear that military rank and protocol are tossed aside.

At the other end of Camp Caldwell on the same night a smaller group of soldiers gathered around a pool table to watch a billiards tournament.

PLEASANT DISTRACTIONS

Waiting for his next billiards game in the winner's bracket, Spc. Chucky Jones, 45, of Henderson, Tenn., said the activity takes his mind off the dangers of the job.

"If we had nothing to do, you'd see a lot of soldiers getting mad at each other for nothing," he said.

Winners of various competitions get their individual or team pictures displayed in camp. But that is not as important as getting bragging rights, according to Sgt. Jeff Stephens, 37, of Franklin County, also a billiards competition participant.

The games are good for relations with their Iraqi counterparts, as well. A group of Iraqis who work at Camp Caldwell competed against several soldiers from the regiment's support squadron during a beach volleyball game.

The activities are planned and supplied by civilian contract employees with Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton that maintains much of camp life here including cleaning bathrooms, preparing meals and washing clothes.

The company also oversees the two massive gyms housed in aluminum barns at Camp Caldwell that stay open 24 hours a day. The gyms offer rows and rows of exercise bikes, treadmills and stair climbers as well as dumbbells, bars and benches for weight lifting.

Staff Sgt. Edgar Shiver, 41, of Dalton, Ga., puts on a gray Army T-shirt and black Army shorts six days a week to work out.

"I'm in better shape than I have been in awhile," said Staff Sgt. Shiver, who said he exercised only three times a week at home where there were more demands on his time. "If we didn't have this, we'd go nuts."

For the less athletically inclined, the camp offers ongoing tournaments for chess and card players.

In addition, every Friday night at Camp Caldwell is salsa night. Soldiers put aside their weapons as they learn the moves, but military uniforms, including boots, still are a requirement. On Saturdays, a disc jockey spins records for country, rhythm and blues, hip hop or karaoke lovers.

Soldiers with the 278th here recently formed their own band, which opened with a few songs this week before the Charlie Daniels Band took the stage.

ANGELS IN IRAQ

Charlie Daniels' appearance was not the first staged entertainment here this year. Earlier a group of dancing cheerleaders calling themselves the "Perfect Angels" performed synchronized moves that had some soldiers whooping and yelling and others exclaiming the performance wasn't a typical Bob Hope-style USO tour. Soldiers lucky enough not to be out on missions that night crowded the stage by the hundreds, most armed with digital cameras.

But the most envied soldiers of the night were those assigned to guard the dancers, many of whom called themselves struggling actors. Iraqi employees stood around as well to take in the taste of American pop culture.

"No more combat fatigue," said Spc. Caleb Martin, 20, of Englewood, Tenn., as he cradled an autographed group photo of the "Perfect Angels."

E-mail Lee Pitts at lpitts@timesfreepress.com

On the Web: Photos by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika of the 278th Regimental Combat Team are available on the Times Free Press Web site. Visit http://www.timesfreepress.com/kp.

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