Utah GIs stay upbeat despite dull guard duty
CAMP DUKE, Iraq - Cathy Janney peers through an oversized set of binoculars, into the endless desert beyond the small wooden tower she has been sitting in for the past six hours.
With two hours to go in her shift, she fights to keep focused on her job: protecting this forward operating base from attack.
Granted, no one here can actually recall the last time there was an attack. With 20 kilometers of sand between here and the nearest city - which, as things go in Iraq, is a pretty peaceful place - there simply isn't much concern that Camp Duke will be overrun.
For a long time, this dreary job was relegated to Duke's least fortunate soldiers, who sat for 12-hour shifts, in 100-plus-degree heat, seven days a week, in miserably small towers.
And so it came as some surprise to base officials when Capt. Budd Vogrinec volunteered his soldiers for the job. And even more so when it was realized that many of those soldiers, rather than feeling saddled with a wretched new mission, stepped lively into the towers.
To be certain, it is still boring work: The decorations in Janney's tower make that much clear. On the wall behind her, a buxom young woman - a life-size, ballpoint sketch of rousingly fine detail known as "Tower One Female" - looks over Janney's shoulder.
Inked in the wood above the tower window: droll messages from guard to guard.
"What this tower needs," reads one note, "is more cow bell."
Vogrinec and his crew, from the 115th Maintenance Company of the Utah National Guard, have made something of a mission out of proving that even this most tedious duty can be made bearable.
Almost immediately after they took the wearisome reins, shifts were cut from 12 hours to eight. Air conditioners were installed. The smallest boxes were replaced with newer, more spacious plywood constructions. And specific soldiers were charged with ensuring that each tower had a ready supply of water, Gatorade and, at meal time, hot plates of food.
"I have absolutely nothing to complain about," says Janney, of Missoula, Mont. "The shifts are long, but really not that bad at all."
A few hundred meters away, Dave Bawden and watch partner Scott Harrington stare out over an empty road leading to the base.
"This tower keeps you more busy than the other ones," says Bawden, a native of West Valley City. He noted that, occasionally, a car or truck passes by his tower.
Vogrinec insists he never worries about his soldiers slacking off on duty. And whereas some commanders, when they roll up to a tower unexpectedly, might offer a courtesy honk of the horn, he doesn't. It's not that he wants to catch his soldiers out of uniform or asleep, he says, but rather that he delights in the fact that he never has.
There is another secret to this success, though. The tower duty is boring, yes, but it breaks up what would otherwise be an infinite schedule of maintenance work.
Killing monotony with more monotony?
For soldiers called away from their homes for a year of war service, but who probably will never see the more exciting aspects of the war, the less routine the better. To that end, Vogrinec has also tried to find as many opportunities as possible for his soldiers to leave the base on patrol and humanitarian missions.
"These guys get to go out and see something different, and that really helps keep them interested and involved," Vogrinec says.
And if, with his soldiers standing watch over the endless empty desert, the base never comes under attack, Vogrinec says, "all the better."
Reporter Matthew D. LaPlante and photographer Rick Egan have been traveling in Iraq with Utah-based military units. Daily online dispatches, including additional information about, and photographs of, the troops with whom they are assigned, may be found at http://www.sltrib.com/iraq.
You may reach LaPlante and Egan at firstname.lastname@example.org.