It's been a busy and stressful four months for the soldiers assigned to the 45th Military Intelligence Company, assigned to gather and analyze intelligence for the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Since December, the brigade has conducted two major training exercises and then began packing up its roughly 4,000 soldiers and 1,000 vehicles for the trip to Iraq.
With the flight to the Middle East imminent, Picasso Bros., a cigar shop in Lacey, gave about a dozen soldiers assigned to the company's 2nd Platoon a proper send-off recently.
There were decorations and snacks inside, but the soldiers, some accompanied by their spouses, stayed outside to enjoy the warm evening, the light conversation and a quality cigar or two.
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"It's really nice because we haven't had a chance to relax in quite a while," said Staff Sgt. Wayne Demetriff, 30.
The cigar shop and soldiers with the company have developed a special relationship that began with the search by Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Alexander, a 33-year-old Lacey resident, for a particular cigar.
Alexander's enjoyment of cigars began a few years ago during a trip to Africa when he was assigned to the Joint Analysis Center in England. He attended a dinner in Chad with several diplomats and attaches, and afterward they retired for cigars and drinks. He was particularly taken by the smooth flavor of one cigar he was offered.
Alexander took an immediate liking to cigars, despite the health risks. Unlike the quick fix offered by cigarettes, cigars can be savored for up to 30 minutes, he explained. That fit Alexander, a thoughtful, outgoing man who enjoys conversations as much as quiet moments of reflection.
"It just creates, like I said, the perfect atmosphere," he said.
Transferred to Fort Lewis, Alexander scouted for a cigar shop, visited Picasso Bros. and took an immediate liking to the staff. He became a regular. Soon, he began checking in after work to chit-chat and eventually was training new employees.
"They've kind of accepted me as part of the Picasso Bros. family," he said.
His love of cigars proved addictive. The number of soldiers who smoked cigars grew and some gave up cigarettes for them.
In June, Alexander and 10 soldiers in his platoon moved Picasso Bros. from near Fred Meyer to 3813 Pacific Ave., which formerly held Pizza Hut.
In addition to organizing the send-off, store manager Nicole Blocker secured $2,000 worth of cigars for the soldiers. Some were gift-wrapped and distributed at the send-off and the remainder will be shipped to Iraq.
"She called each of the manufacturers, and they were more than happy to send a box or two to these guys," said store owner Michael Karch, who also owns a store in Centralia.
Alexander bought a traveling humidor, which stores cigars at an optimum humidity, to protect them from Iraq's brutal heat.
One for the road just isn't enough.