Soldier's Diary: Vices and 'Near Beer' in Iraq

Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

May 11, 2006

In the last entry, I talked a bit about some of the nights I end the day with a cigar. I got a number of different reactions. The first was from a number of people who e-mailed me offering to send me more. I have to reiterate that I cannot accept anything from any readers of the journal. However, there are ways to get stuff to soldiers through a number of organizations.

The second reaction focused on why I was talking about smoking cigars. It's not the smoking that I want to convey, rather the conversations that take place when we do take some down time.

I have found that in the military, the best ideas are developed when a group of peers sits down during some off time and talks about tactics, or new doctrine that could be used in the fight. When we have new ideas or thoughts, I have always thought it better to ask my peers on their views. When you are surrounded by professionals who will take what you say and give an honest opinion, sitting around at the end of the day and smoking a cigar can be a great way to validate your thoughts.

Malcom Gladwell wrote an excellent piece on this very phenomenon back in 2002 in an article titled "Group Think." I believe what he wrote is very applicable to our profession.

The third reaction was how I should not advocate smoking. I agree, but if it is something myself or other soldiers do here, I am going to put it in the journal. Although we do not drink alcohol while deployed, the fact is there are other "vices" to choose from: Cigars, cigarettes, dip, chewing tobacco and such. A couple of times a week I will smoke a cigar and the demand at the PX for dip is always high.

There is an expression, "An Army marches on its stomach." Being over here, you can be convinced real easily that our Army marches on two things: Caffeine and nicotine. I base this solely on the amount of coffee and Red Bull I have seen our staff consume over the last seven-and-a-half months, and the fact that the "street value" of a can of Copenhagen over here is equal to a carton of cigarettes in a maximum security prison.

To give you an idea on how much dip is consumed, in the PX, you can purchase a tactical carrying case for your dip can to attach to your uniform.

When I say PX, I am referring to the Post Exchange that is on our FOB [forward operating base]. It's basically a small trailer that sells all different items from hygiene gear, tobacco, and other items such as DVDs and MP3s. They sell food and drinks, but I always wonder why soldiers buy food there, when the dining facility gives the same stuff away for free. The most interesting item it sells is the "Near Beer," or non-alcoholic beer. It makes no sense to me, but I suppose they would not sell it if nobody bought it.

One possible explanation for the existence of the non-alcoholic beer is that Saddam hid his weapons of mass destruction in the Near Beer freezer. It would be the perfect place, as I don't believe anyone has ever opened the doors to the freezers where the Near Beer is kept.

Our PX is relatively small when compared to others on different FOBs. We had a larger one, but about four months ago it burned down in a fire. Nobody was hurt, and they say it was an electrical fire. The trailer PX came in about one week later, and the following month, a Green Beans Coffee and Burger King trailer opened up adjacent to the PX. Small shops, but nothing you can't find on most bases in Iraq.

All the shops are nice to have, but don't let anyone fool you by saying, "we have all the amenities of home." I have always held the belief that if you can make a soldier's life better and more comfortable, you should do it, so long as it does not have an adverse effect on the mission.

This week has been uneventful for the most part. As I mentioned before, SFC Massey took his leave. I have been able to get some help in covering some meetings from SFC Miller.

Sgt. First Class Jon Miller is the platoon sergeant for the military police platoon assigned to our brigade. Back at home station in Fort Campbell, Ky., he was responsible for about 40 soldiers, but over here, the size of his platoon has nearly doubled, as has his workload. Like the other soldiers I have talked about, when it comes to the incredible amount of tasks and work that is asked of him, you will never hear one complaint. The only things you will hear from SFC Miller are recommendations and ideas on how to do something better. I rely on his advice, and as like SFC Massy, SFC Miller has put in his time in combat prior to this deployment, having already spent a year in Iraq during OIF I [Operation Iraq Freedom I].

SFC Miller's soldiers are outside the wire every day, running escort missions and the like, and it is no coincidence that under his leadership, their performance to date can be defined as nothing short of brilliant. It's not just SFC Miller that has allowed them to perform so well since the start of the deployment. The NCO [non-commissioned officer] leadership and the soldiers in the platoon continue to give everything they've got, day in and day out. When you look at them, you know they will continue to do so for the next five months until we go home.

E-mail Captain Dan at Click here to read his bio.