Friday, March 6, 2009

York area troops find time to relax on Iraq duty

Reporter NICOLA FIFIELD, who has been spending a week with the 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment during its final tour of Iraq, gets a taste of life inside the Contingency Operating Base, in Basra.

A MILITARY camp in Iraq is the last place you would expect to see Father Christmas, Superman and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

But this wasn’t a dream – believe it or not, these characters were all participants in a five-kilometre fancy dress fun run around the British and American Contingency Operating Base (COB) in Basra.

Nearly 200 troops had given up their one lie-in of the week to brave scorching temperatures of nearly 30C and take part in the charity event on a Sunday.

Each fun runner paid a minimum donation of one US dollar and together they raised more than 1,300 dollars for the Royal British Legion and a Cerebral Palsy Centre in Basra.

Among them was Corporal Dale Smith, from Selby, who proved that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, it is always possible to cobble together a fancy dress costume.
Corporal Smith, 26, a former pupil of Barlby High School, was taking part in the run with his troop dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

“We made our costumes with whatever we could find,” he said.

“We’ve got plastic forks and we’re wearing our green sleeping bags.
“It’s going to be pretty warm, but it’s great to be having a bit of fun together while raising some money for two really good causes.”

Corporal Smith, who has been in Iraq since November, works as a technician in the base, repairing communication systems. Fancy dress fun runs are a monthly occurrence, and help to keep morale high and test resourcefulness.

Other costumes included a mankini, a tin-foil silver surfer, a cardboard Red Cross van and even a 12-man dragon.

Spot prizes, donated by the Navy Army Air Force Institution (NAAFI), were handed out to finishers and there was also an IPod up for grabs for the soldier wearing the best fancy dress costume.

The Basra base is home to about 3,500 British troops and 1,000 US troops.
About five miles long and two miles wide, it has become so big, shuttle buses are needed to transport soldiers around.

It is a vast, dusty warren of large beige and green tents, sandbags, security fencing, noisy generators and temporary buildings.

Accommodation is either in large dormitory-style tents or small aluminium temporary buildings – each housing a bomb-proof bunker to sleep in.

Four huge “scoff houses” – or canteens in non-Army language – serve more than 14,000 meals a day and there is also a volleyball court, gyms and even a Subway takeaway.

“I wouldn’t mind having a beer or a big steak, but the food’s pretty good considering we’re in the middle of Iraq,” said Private Billy Gillan, of Acomb, in York.

The 21-year-old, a former pupil of Lowfield School, in York, is working in the operations cell as a signaller.

“Being in the Army is more than I expected,” he said.

“I really enjoy what I do and you get so many different life experiences that you wouldn’t get working in a shop somewhere.

“We’re like a big family in the COB.

“We all look out for each other and I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many different people.”

Keeping the COB going is a team of around 80 support staff who are responsible for managing supplies and equipment.

Among them is Private Daniel Taylor, of Selby, who drives a nine-tonne truck to deliver supplies to troops living outside the COB in other parts of southern Iraq.

“The hardest thing about being out here is being separated from my family,” said the 33-year-old, whose wife Wendy and four children, Matthew, Luke, Sam and Freya, are waiting for him at their home in M√ľnster, north Germany, where the 1st Battalion has its barracks.

“But we couldn’t ask for more here. Facilities are really good. We can use the internet and there are also gyms and a welfare tent with a TV.”

Soldiers living in the Basra base yearn for things such as long, hot, full power showers and sleeping in a bed that isn’t built of breeze blocks.

But these soldiers know they are in Iraq to do a job and such home comforts are something they are prepared to sacrifice to achieve that.

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