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Thu, November 27, 2003

Two hours' sleep and an MRE

Amy Kenna
Star Staff Writer

SHELBY, N.C. — Fain and Jane Hamrick will prepare a Thanksgiving meal today, but their hearts won’t be in it.

Their hearts will be in Kirkuk, Iraq — where Fain’s son Brad, who has gone months without a bath or hot meal, will be sleeping in a hole and eating MREs.

Brad will probably get two hours of sleep tonight, according to Fain.

“Two hours of sleep is a rarity,” Fain said. “You can’t relax in your sleep, because there’s constantly something going on.”

A soldier in the Army’s 173rd Airborne division, Brad has been in Iraq since the beginning of the war.

He was deployed just seven days after his newlywed wife, Memorie, moved to Italy where they were stationed.

The 26-year-old Western Carolina University graduate has left a void his parents say cannot be filled until he returns home.

“This is the first year Brad won’t be home for Christmas,” Jane said. “We’ve been trying to get packages together. There’s not a whole lot you can send, but he’s really been wanting cookies and cakes.”

The home-baked goodies will probably be stale by the time they reach Iraq, two weeks from now.

But in his letters, Brad says stale food from home is better than anything fresh in Iraq.

“If you see the livestock over there, their ribs are showing,” Fain said. “He says every four to six weeks he gets a stomach virus.”

“It’s hard to think about planning a big Thanksgiving meal when you know they’re not eating,” Jane said.

‘Very Intense’

The first night of the war, 1,000 U.S. soldiers parachuted from planes into the Northern Iraqi landscape.

Brad was one of them.

“They dropped 1,000 men in one minute out of 10 planes,” Fain said. “Brad was the eighth one out of his plane.”

Only 28 similar jumps have occurred in U.S. military history, according to Fain.

“He’s done something very few men have done,” he said. Brad later received his wings with a bronze star in the middle, signifying a combat jump.

Brad told Fain the jump was “very intense,” with each man carrying 50 pounds of gear on his back, plus another 100 pounds of mortar plate and rounds.

“They dropped from 10,000 feet to 1,000 feet in a matter of minutes because they were under fire,” Fain said. “The G-force was putting pressure on their backs. He had to waddle out of the plane because he had so much equipment.

Turkey and gravy MRE

Though the war is officially over, Brad’s unit is still on the move, sleeping in holes and eating MREs, military jargon for meals ready to eat.

“Brad wrote and said, “My Thanksgiving dinner will probably consist of a turkey and gravy MRE,” Fain said.

Even so, soldiers like Brad say they have more luxuries than most Iraqi citizens.

“Brad was on patrol one night and a little 4-year-old girl followed him from midnight to 8 a.m.,” Fain said. “She had no shoes and she followed him the entire time. When he finished his patrol, he bought her a loaf of bread. He said she latched onto him and wouldn’t let go.

“I think for all those young soldiers, it’s a kind of an awakening to see that type of poverty,” Fain said. “The Iraqis have been under Saddam’s rule for so long.”

Poverty isn’t the only extreme witnessed by soldiers in Iraq.

In Saddam Hussein’s palaces, Brad has seen bathroom fixtures made of solid gold.

“He said you could look just right across the street and people would be living in shacks and taking baths in mud puddles,” Fain said.

‘They’ve been forgotten’

It’s hard to know who the enemy is in Iraq, because would-be insurgents look like everyone else.

“Walking the streets you wouldn’t know who were the good ones and who were the bad ones,” Jane said.

The Iraqi borders are porous, with people coming and going at will, Fain said.

“Terrorists and extremists are coming in from other countries,” Fain said. “They’re really not just fighting Saddam’s forces, but people from all over.”

Worst of all, many of the soldiers in Iraq are starting to feel abandoned.

The letters and care packages from home don’t come as often anymore.

“The hard thing is, during the war there was such a feeling of patriotism and people were writing and sending packages,” Fain said. “I think they all feel like they’ve been forgotten.”

When soldiers are on the move, access to mail is even more difficult.

“Last Saturday, when we had an opportunity to talk to Brad, none of them had received any mail in several weeks,” Fain said.

When soldiers do get mail — if it’s stale cookies, new socks, the sports section of The Star or a tube of toothpaste — it brings back a priceless sensation of home.

“They miss the things at home that they can’t see, or do, or touch or taste,” Fain said.

Brad, for example, misses clutching a golf iron in his fists.

A friend recently cut a golf club in two and threaded it together, then mailed it to Brad so he could reassemble and swing it, Fain said.

“Things like that mean a lot,” he said.

‘No time together’

Brad married Memorie in August 2002 — just three weeks after their engagement.

They initially planned a 2003 wedding, but Brad’s overseas assignment changed everything.

“She had her diamond, they decided on a date, and three weeks later they were married,” Jane said.

Three days after the marriage, Brad returned for training in Fort Benning, Ga.

In January, Brad moved to Italy. Memorie followed later, just as the war in Iraq was heating up.

Seven days after she arrived, Brad left for Iraq.

“She’s still there,” said Fain. “It’s just Memorie and their dog Mack.”

Brad had to come home on emergency leave in May, due to a medical situation in the family.

“They got him off a rooftop in Kirkuk in the middle of the night,” Fain said. “He had to buy a T-shirt and sweatpants at the airport in Germany because they aren’t supposed to fly in fatigues.”

From Germany, Brad got on a commercial flight to America.

“It had been 82 days since he had a bath or a hot meal,” Fain said, laughing. “Everyone on the plane was suffering.”

Memorie will be alone for the holidays.

“It’s sad because they’ve really had no time together,” Jane said.

Giving thanks

Thanksgiving is going to be tough, the Hamricks said.

Still, they are thankful.

Thankful that friends still remember Brad.

“We had three different phone calls today of people wanting to know what they could send Brad for Christmas,” Fain said.

They are thankful that the 130-degree weather has cooled down in Kirkuk.

They are thankful that someday, Brad will come home.

He is supposed to leave Iraq anytime between January and April of next year, according to the Hamricks.

But for two more years, “home” will be Italy, not Shelby.

“That means Fain and I will be jumping on a plane for Italy sometime in the near future,” Jane said.

Finally, the Hamricks are thankful for Brad’s sacrifice.

“This Thursday is going to be difficult,” Jane said. “But we’re thankful that we have men in the military who fight for us every single day.”

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