War Zone Fitness
Before my most recent trip to Baghdad, I asked my wife what on earth she thinks when I pack my bags to speed off with nothing but cameras and body armor to a war zone. Surprisingly, she replied without hesitation, "If I were a photographer, I would be living in Baghdad. Just take some great pictures." Those are reassuring words for a photographer but as a husband it doesn't make it any easier to be away from her and our safe little apartment in Istanbul nor does it make it any easier on the rest of my family back in the U.S. who wonder if by chance I was one of the latest casualties showboated on Fox News. For me, as long as I keep busy, it's much easier to be away.
Fresh out of basic training, my brother went to Iraq back in 1991 so I know firsthand the effect war has both on families and separated soldiers. I made a choice to be here; my brother did not. At times it seems a bit of a paradigm shift for me that I choose to enter that very same country where six helicopters have been shot out of the sky in just three short weeks and daily casualties mount with the predictability of a second hand sweeping a clock. Nonetheless, my brief jaunts to Iraq do not even register in comparison to the over 120,000 American soldiers that have no choice but to be there.
Scratch beneath the physical surface of the war zone known as Iraq and you find a living, breathing mass of human beings that probably feel more contrasts of love, hate, pain, pleasure, joy, sadness, loneliness, desolation and boredom than most of us will feel in two lifetimes. Equal to thoughts of being killed or injured in action are worries of money, home and relationships while being displaced for a six- and sometimes a 12-month tour of duty. While in a war zone people can break up, divorce, fall in love, go bankrupt and even become parents from 8,000 miles away.
A large number of soldiers searching for a distraction kill time and pad their emotions by channeling some of those feelings into a regular workout regimen. In stark, desolate places like Forward Operating Base Falcon south of Baghdad, soldiers from the 40th Cavalry color their days pumping iron in a gym converted from an old hangar. FOB Falcon was the target of a massive assault back in October when mortars and rocket fire hit a munitions depot. If you watched it live on CNN, you were very likely awed by the skyscraper-sized plumes from the blast and wondered how anything could have survived. When I asked around, "They blew up our gym," was the only detail I could squeeze out of the soldiers.
The U.S military has taken notice of this need for exercise in a war zone not only for physical fitness but also for mental well-being. State-of-the-art gyms are now commonplace not only in Baghdad's Green Zone fortress but also in far less safe spots like Falcon. Before the gym was built there soldiers were limited to "prison workouts" made up of sit-ups, pushups and other calisthenics. They now have equipment that rivals any L.A. Fitness or Gold's Gym. Part of the reality of war zone fitness is that Falcon's outdoor basketball court sits empty, its use forbidden after being a regular target of incoming mortars. One soldier from the 40th Cav thanked me for interviewing him because it meant one less day he'd have to go out in a Humvee sweeping for IEDs.
What seems like a world away in the more secure fortress known as the Green Zone, soldiers jog on the concrete path between the two pairs of 140-foot-long crossed swords that, in Saddam's heyday served as a gateway for military parades. Hoards of Iraqi tanks once rolled across the Iranian helmets that Saddam had instructed to be laboriously planted in the cement while the former dictator blasted a shotgun in the air: all in a staged performance to show his military prowess. Now, hundred-dollar Nikes wrapped around the feet of American soldiers are all that touch them save for the occasional four tires of an air-conditioned coalition SUV.
It's not just combat-weary soldiers that benefit from the stress-reducing workouts. Doctors in the Baghdad's 86th Combat Support Hospital (aka the CASH) utilize every spare bit of space and time to even out the effects of treating 30-50 battle wounded soldiers in their 12-hour daily shifts. Major Kelly Gillespie, M.D., has a bike set up at the hospital and is always just a step away from the "burn." Captain Kara Weigel, a physical therapist at the CASH, runs 50 miles a week and won the aptly named Baghdad Marathon in November. Four to five times a week, like Spiderman, Captain David Hile, M.D., plots a vertical course and ascends the old brick wall of a residence building on the hospital grounds. Not expecting he would need his rock climbing shoes in Baghdad, his wife sent them after he saw the wall. In Baghdad, the Internet means that a pair of cross-training shoes or workout clothes are just a week away via Amazon.com or WalMart.com.
SFC Stephen Sanders of the 1st Cavalry Division is in charge of "Freedom Rest" inside the Green Zone. Formerly known as the Iraqi Republican Guard Officers Club, Freedom Rest offers workout, swimming, and R&R activities for soldiers fresh from the battlefield. Sanders, a trained Army tanker, takes great pride in offering solace and a brief amount comfort to incoming troops. Army tankers are born and bred to fight and shoot things up, but helping a steady stream of troops through tougher times momentarily satiates Sanders.
© David Honl
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