Wednesday, March 30, 2005

TOP STORY>> Soldiers glad to leave war zone in Iraq

Leader staff writer

Most of the soldiers returning from Iraq talk about the sand, but Spc. Hudson Hendricks remembers the water.

His living quarters were in a basement of a guardhouse at one of Uday Hussein’s abandoned palaces near the Tigress River. It flooded five times during Hendricks’ year-long tour. At one point, the floor had six inches of standing water in it for over a week.

“It was in pretty bad shape. We spent a lot of money to fix it up,” he said.
Hendricks arrived back in Searcy on Saturday, after a week of debriefing at Fort Sill, Okla.

Hendricks is a member of the 39th Infantry Brigade and was stationed with 120 soldiers at Fort Apache in the Al-Adhamiya district of old Bahgdad. Their mission was daily peacekeeping patrols in the area.

“There was a little while I didn’t really expect to come home. There’d be rumors that we’d be extended and the rumors would really drive you crazy. You had to not listen because very few of them were ever true,” Hendricks said.

Despite the flooding problems with his quarters, the sand still found its way into everything. He said when soldiers finished with their electronic games, CD and DVD players, they wrapped them up in towels to save them from the ubiquitous sand.

Like many other members of the 39th, Hendricks missed his American diet. Some of the older and larger camps in Iraq have post exchanges and fast-food outlets. There’s a Burger King at Camp Taji, where many members of the 39th were stationed.

Hendricks and the others at Fort Apache lived off Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for more than two months. Eventually they were able to coordinate traveling to a neighboring military post 20 minutes away to bring back one hot meal a day.

A local vendor was allowed to sell the soldiers of Fort Apache snacks and drinks.
“Ali sold us sodas, but no Dr. Pepper whatsoever, and chips nobody had ever heard of. When we were leaving and I got to the chow hall in Kuwait, I ate pancakes everyday, I missed them and I missed McDonald’s,” he said.

Hendricks was an apprentice brick mason when he left for Iraq. Now he plans to go to college at either University of Central Arkansas in Conway or Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
“Being back hasn’t really sunk in yet. When I drive, I have to remind myself to not drive down the middle of the road like we do over there,” he said.

Hog calls and Razorback-style welcomes have greeted the Arkansas troops arriving at Fort Sill.
When the group of 39th Infantry Brigade soldiers marched onto the floor of the Rinehart Physical Fitness Center at Fort Sill over two weeks ago, they were met with a roaring welcome from family and friends in the bleachers.

“It was the same reaction you get at a Razorback football game when the team takes the field. It was quite an emotional event,” said Steve Teague of Jacksonville.

Teague and his wife, Vicki, drove to Fort Sill to welcome home their son SSgt. Chris Teague, among the first group of returning soldiers from the 39th Infantry Brigade. Vicki Teague’s parents, Jack and Pat Boyd and Ray and Betty Pennington, also made the trip, eager to see their grandson.

“It was very emotional to see him. He had grown a moustache and it made him look older, more mature,” Steve Teague said. “We got to see him quite a bit of the total seven days he was there and we went out to eat a lot.”

During the days when SSgt. Teague was busy, his family toured the military museum at Fort Sill and went sightseeing locally. They also waited while he caught up on sleep and visited with fellow soldiers.

“The bond between soldiers is strong, they really become buddies. In my opinion those soldiers probably ran on adrenaline for the past year working 12-14 hour days,” said his father.

Teague’s grandparents June and Larry Bonham were among family members eagerly waiting when the Teagues brought Chris back to Jacksonville the following week.

“The weather was just too rainy for a party, so I told him and his cousin I’ll take them all over to Western Sizzlin to eat out for steak night,” June Bonham said.

Most soldiers stay at Fort Sill a week for debriefing, but some soldiers, like Sgt. Michelle Franks of Jacksonville, have stayed longer in Fort Sill for additional training and briefings.

“She’s still there. She had to go to some extra classes, but she’ll be home about April 7,” said Michael Franks.

Michael Franks traveled to Fort Sill to see his wife when she arrived there with the first group of soldiers. Sgt. Franks is a medic with the 39th Infantry Brigade and was stationed at Camp Taji.