A soldiers' oasis in Iraq

TALLIL, Iraq - Fruit-flavored tobacco, near beer, salsa music, a bonfire and dancers wearing reflective belts.

Call it deployment downtime.

Five Washington National Guard soldiers serving with a transportation company spent Monday night unwinding after an eight-hour long haul at a pizza joint called 6Pazzi that serves as the center of Contingency Operating Base Adder’s social scene. They took long drags off hookahs, munched on pepperoni pizza, sipped non-alcoholic Budweiser and imported soft drinks, and cracked jokes.

“Whenever we go out on a long one,” Staff Sgt. Rick Garces of Quincy said, “we try to hang out a bit and relax. And this place is pretty fun.”

By Iraq standards, 6Pazzi offered soldiers the closest thing to a bar scene they’ve found. Strings of colored lights hung from the 15-foot concrete T-walls. The restaurant’s employees fed wooden pallets into a raging fire pit. Speakers thumped music, and a clearing amid the plastic tables served as a dance floor. The bar inside was stocked with bottles of mineral water and mixers that looked convincingly similar to fifths of liquor at first glance.

Soldiers and contractors crowded around tables and smoked flavored tobacco from hookahs, the long-stemmed water pipes. The Washington National Guard soldiers had three pipes at their table, smoking tobacco flavored like apple, strawberry, peach, watermelon and grape.

“It’s like Baskin-Robbins out here,” said Cpl. Jared Davis, a Spokane resident on his first deployment.

The soldiers hauled a delivery of other M915 trucks earlier that day from Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad, to Tallil in Iraq’s southeast.

The convoy of 12 trucks and eight Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles drove about eight hours, arriving Sunday night. The soldiers had Monday off as their trucks were being reloaded; they planned to return to Taji today.

About 175 Washington National Guardsmen are deployed to Iraq from two truck units: the 1161st Transportation Company based in Ephrata and the 1041st Transportation Company from Spokane. The soldiers, who mobilized in March and arrived in Iraq in May, are based in Baghdad and Taji but drive routes across the country.

“Taji’s pretty boring,” said Spc. Justin Rollins, a driver from Grant County. “There isn’t anywhere like (the restaurant) anywhere on the base. Or at least I haven’t found it.”

Service members wearing workout clothes and camouflage – and, of course, the requisite reflective belt – gyrated to the feisty salsa beats. The target of the soldiers’ jokes momentarily turned from each other to a contractor dancing by himself and wearing an impossibly unfashionable red, white and black vertically striped shirt.

As the night wore on, the music switched from salsa to Arabic techno-pop. About 40 Iraqis flocked to the dance floor and jumped rhythmically to the tempo. The soldiers tried in vain to get their comrades to join them.

“Hey, if this was real,” said Davis, lifting his near beer, “I’d get out there.”