The mission isn’t what you’d expect for a soldier on a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
On any given day, Oregon Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Michael White, of Crooked River Ranch, oversees soldiers who take reservations, handle maintenance calls and prepare full-plated meals at the Joint Visitors Bureau, a five-star hotel near Baghdad.
Once used by guests of Saddam Hussein, the hotel is now the place where high-ranking military officers, diplomats and politicians stay when they come to visit. Keeping the hotel running — and its high-profile guests safe — is up to White and the rest of his 21-member platoon, which includes other Central Oregonians.
“My day pretty much starts and ends whenever there’s a need,” White, 40, said in an interview over an Internet video chat program. “The staff at the hotel work pretty long hours; we’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we maintain shifts all the way through. So my guys, they’re pretty busy all the way through. They’re looking forward to coming home.”
It’s been more than six months since White and some 2,500 other Oregon soldiers with the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived in Iraq. The deployment, which includes the 450-member 1st Squadron, 82nd Cavalry, based in Bend, is the state’s largest since World War II. About 110 soldiers from the Bend unit live in Central Oregon.
The deployment officially began in May, when the soldiers traveled to Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Ga., for two months of training. After a short stay in Kuwait, the 41st Brigade arrived in Iraq in July and is scheduled to return home this spring.
Some of the Oregon soldiers are responsible for security on the base where they are stationed, while others protect civilian contractors moving supplies around the country or visiting dignitaries.
Much of the training the soldiers received before leaving for the Middle East — learning to secure a convoy of Humvees after an explosion or handling armed civilians at a checkpoint — was in preparation for more standard security missions. Running a hotel, White said, requires an entirely different set of skills.
In preparation for their work at the Joint Visitors Bureau, White’s platoon received hands-on training at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, a historic hotel in Savannah. Though working in Iraq comes with plenty of unique challenges — trying to prepare meals from scratch can be tough with limited supplies — White said the job is generally the same in any location.
“We’re trying to improve the ability here for senior-level officials and senior-level officers so they can accomplish their missions without having to give any thought to their (needs at the hotel,”) he said. “In a normal hotel, they’re there to make a profit, and even though we’re not profit-driven, we try to utilize the same procedures, the same tactics to accomplish the mission.”
The biggest perk of the assignment, White said, is the chance to meet the people making the decisions about military strategy and foreign policy.
“The vice president, secretary of defense, joint chiefs of staff, they’ve all stayed here,” he said. “And I’ve gotten to meet a lot of civilian advisers as well. It’s really brought an interesting aspect in talking to them about stuff other than military operations, about humanitarian needs, about the way different populations think in different countries and what we need to do.”
Sgt. Anthony Treas, 33, of Bend, has run into his share of big names as a team leader for a squad that provides transportation and security for what the Army calls “distinguished visitors” — people like Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Iraq earlier this month.
Treas said his job requires a lot of flexibility, from being called to pick up visitors at any hour of the day or night, to coordinating with other soldiers, Secret Service agents and staff members of the visitors he’s assigned to protect.
“You’re really pushed to the limit as far as you want to be a good leader and you discover some things you need to work on and just dealing with social issues, dealing with the soldiers (can be challenging),” he said. “Even in relationships, you need time away from each other. And we see each other every day in a stressful situation, and it’s an everyday thing, everyday battle, working with people, trying to understand people, trying to understand yourself as a leader and hoping you do a good job.”
When he gets time off, Treas said he stays in touch with his wife over Internet chat conversations, taking online college classes, and practicing and teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a gym on the base. He said most soldiers live in small, two-person rooms called CHUs — containerized housing units — which look like commercial shipping containers.
Though the quarters are tight, many soldiers have made their space comfortable, purchasing microwaves, refrigerators and TVs. Overall, he said, the conditions aren’t bad.
“We have it really good,” said Treas. “The soldiers in Afghanistan, I think, those are the guys right now who are really doing the job.”
When the soldiers first arrived in Iraq, the temperatures were blisteringly hot, surging up to 129 degrees, Maj. John Roskowski, 53, of Bend, wrote in an e-mail. These days, it’s much cooler, with temperatures dipping into the 30s and 40s.
“We have gotten a little bit of rain this winter,” Roskowski wrote. “When it does rain, the ground gets very pasty ... kind of like pancake batter. It sticks to our boots and makes an incredible mess everywhere we walk.”
Many soldiers have been able to return home on leave at some point during the deployment. White was back in Central Oregon for about two weeks in August, when he took his 8-year-old son, Connor, to his first football game. Treas was home for Thanksgiving and was able to visit family out of the state.
Maj. Scot Caughran, who works at the Bend Armory and communicates frequently with the deployed troops, said it’s not clear yet exactly when the deployment will wrap up. But once the soldiers leave Iraq, he said they’ll probably travel through Kuwait before ending up at an Army base in the U.S., where they’ll spend a few days doing paperwork and preparing to demobilize before returning to Oregon.
Treas said he plans to become a full-time student at Central Oregon Community College when he gets home. He said he hopes he’ll be able to settle back into life at home without having to return to the Middle East any time soon.
“It’s really been an interesting experience,” he said. “This is my first deployment, and I just want to make the best of it, and I’m just glad it’s over here soon.”
White said he plans to stay in the military after this deployment — likely on active duty in the Army, which means he could be deployed again.
But running a hotel again? White said one time has been enough.
“No,” he said, chuckling. “No. This is a first for me. And a last.”