Congressmen bring taste of home to troops
December 18, 2009
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - Holiday celebrations generally include family and friends, but for troops in Iraq, homesickness can put a damper on the joy.
So, like a big family, the Soldiers of the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) gathered around the authentic Mississippi gumbo brought by five of their congressional representatives Dec. 14 here at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, to enjoy a little taste of home for the holidays.
The congressmen shipped 1,400 pounds of shrimp and 150 gallons of authentic Mississippi gumbo mix for the troops to enjoy during their visit, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Sutton, a food services technician with the 13th ESC.
The visit, dubbed "Operation Gumbo Drop," had its inception during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when elements of the Mississippi National Guard were deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat representing Mississippi's 4th District, said the idea came about in an unorthodox manner.
"The first time we did it ... it was elements of this unit and a lot of the spouses showed up at one of my town meetings shortly after the war ended," said Taylor, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I made some dumb bet, 'Alright look, they're going to be home by the 4th of July. If they're not home by the 4th of July, I'll bring them some shrimp.' Unfortunately, they were not home by the 4th of July."
He brought the shrimp to the Soldiers in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, a port city where the unit was processing equipment, he said.
Since then, the congressmen continue to bring seafood to troops serving in Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq several times annually.
"It's great - for some of these troops, this is the third or fourth time I've met them on a deployment," said Taylor, who is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "I'm over here to say 'Thank you' to them."
Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican from Minnesota's 3rd District; Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Iowa's 1st District; Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Democrat from Kentucky's 2nd District; and Rep. Alan Grayson, Democrat from Florida's 8th District, all served lunch to service members in the dining facility and visited with their constituents while they ate.
The Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 155th Infantry Regiment, with the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 13th ESC, took the opportunity to speak with their congressmen about issues that concerned them.
"I think it's always good when your elected representative can come and visit you, especially in war zone," said Pfc. Wesley Boleware, an infantryman with 1st Bn., 155th Inf. Regt., 155th BCT, 13th ESC.
Soldiers said the politicians put them at ease.
"It's my first time talking to a congressman," said Boleware. "He was very personable - it wasn't intimidating talking to him. He just kind of came off as a regular guy."
A few Soldiers talked politics with their congressmen, including Spc. Marlin S. Muller, also an infantryman with the 155th.
"Even though our political views differed, it's always good for morale to see your politicians are thinking about you as well as making the trip over here to see you," said Muller.
The congressmen said they learn a lot from their visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, while helping service members through their experiences here. Taylor said he realized the need for improved armor on Humvees following an improvised explosive device attack after a September 2003 visit to Iraq.
"We had a young man from home that was badly injured by the first IED that I had heard of," he said. "I came back around Christmas time of '03 and members of that same unit had gone with what they called 'hillbilly armor,' which was the homemade stuff."
After seeing the damage wrought by the sub-par armor, Taylor said he and his fellow congressmen on the House Armed Services Committee worked hard to provide up-armored vehicles for Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In spring of '05, a young man from this unit had lost both legs and his gunner had been beat up very badly from an underbody explosion, which led me to start searching for something better than that, which led to us to the mine-resistant vehicle," he said.
During their stop at Balad, the congressmen visited the 362nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Phillip Stewart. The 362nd ERS provides eyes and ears for troops on the ground via real-time, full-motion video and recently reached a milestone 1,000 combat sorties.
The congressmen also visited the Air Force Theater Hospital here at JBB. They met with the hospital staff, took a tour and visited Hero's Highway, the path from the emergency room to the helicopter landing pad. An American flag covers the ceiling of the Hero's Highway, through which wounded warriors are brought to the hospital or sent on to Germany.
At the end of the visit, the representatives signed the wall of the 332nd Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility, as do all VIPs who visit Balad.
Taylor said, "I just want to thank them for what they're doing and most of all want everyone to come home safely."