In Iraq, New Year's loud, dry

BASRA, Iraq - The clock read 2300.

Spc. Lloyd Hardrick cut the music and picked up the microphone.

“Listen up!” he yelled. “We’re about to bring the new year in hard, and we’re gonna bring it in right!”

And with that, the lights cut. Bass began thumping. Strobe lights bathed the dance floor with yellow and blue. Soldiers and contractors swayed to the hip-hop beat.

A former British pub at the main American military base outside Iraq’s second-largest city is a far cry from the clubs of Los Angeles or Ibiza, but the soldiers and contractors put aside the war for a few hours to ring in 2010.

“Hey, it’s just not as fun as if we were back home. It’s just not,” said Spc. Nealy Edwards of Fort Lewis’ 17th Fires Brigade. “We try to have events to make it feel normal, but it’s just not as much fun.”

The 21-year-old Houston native motioned toward the dance floor.

“But I’ve never seen people get this excited without booze,” he added, laughing.

Alcohol – or the lack of it – seemed to play on many soldiers’ minds at the handful of parties throughout Contingency Operating Base Basra. Some knocked back energy drinks instead. Others contemplated trying to sneak into the British consulate on base, where it was widely suspected a raucous party must be under way.

And just to serve as a painful reminder, the liquor license for the restaurant – a holdover from when the Brits ran the base – hung on the wall.

“I’d never thought I’d be in Iraq for my 21st birthday – or my first legal drinking New Year’s Eve,” said Spc. Enid Conley, a military policeman from Miami serving with the 17th Fires Brigade who turned 21 on Dec. 1. “But hey, I’m trying to have some fun.”

Hardrick and Spc. Courtney Scott, who plays DJ at the restaurant when not serving with the civil affairs company attached to 17th Fires, kept the hip-hop going into the night.

“I want people to just have a good time,” Hardrick said. “Just because you’re here doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.”