JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Her eyebrows and eyelashes dusted orange-grey, April Brennen lets out a wheezing cough from under the camo Balaclava pulled up to her eyes.
“Happy Fourth of July. I almost forgot what day it is,” the 43-year-old specialist from Grants Pass, Ore., says. “I’ve been coughing up my guts most of the day.”
Soldiers from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit based out of Salem, Ore., woke the morning of July 4 with an orange glow filtering through their 3-by-3 foot windows.
Outside, white lights appear blue on top of the concrete barriers.
Here is the same scene on a clear day:
The sandstorm blocks the sun, and the air is cool and breezy. Silhouettes of trucks roll down the gravel road with red brake lights fading in the distance.
A soldier lugging a backpack with a helmet and a gas mask dangling by his thighs appears out of the fog like a weary apparition.
Doorknobs, sidewalks, roofs, bicycle wheels and aircraft are covered with a film of dust.
From the outside, the base is transformed into a massive shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean with infrequent stirs of life.
Inside, the chow hall is bustling with soldiers loading their plates with steak, lobster tail and red, white and blue cake.
Patriotic streamers hang from the ceiling.
Inside the Containerized Housing Units, or CHUs, the Wi-Fi Internet is out of commission, but computers attached to the Ethernet still provide an outlet to a world not shut down by weather.
Soldiers stay inside, avoiding a lung full of the foul air and the inevitable ball of orange phlegm.
Poor visibility has grounded aircraft for days.
“I was supposed to leave this morning, but my flight got canceled,” says Sergeant Joseph Cunningham, 30, from Salem, Ore., who somehow remains cheerful (below).
What else can he do? All flights are canceled, even for Vice President Joe Biden in Baghdad.
“Airplanes carrying the mail can’t fly in this dust,” says Sergeant First Class Will Welborn, 20, a flight medic from Silverton, Ore. “I would feel really bad if someone died transporting my double stuffed Oreos" in a package sent from home.
Charlie Company still shows up on their compound for 24-hour rotations, their movement restricted to several trailers.
They cannot walk farther than a half-mile circumference to make sure they can hear their radios just in case the weather clears and a mission is called.
Sergeant Rob Boyce, a 45-year-old crew chief from Keizer, Ore., usually spends his holiday celebrating at the Portland Oregon Waterfront Blues Festival.
Instead of beer, fireworks and music, he passes the time watching a John Wayne tribute on the "O’Reilly Factor" as Sarah Palin’s resignation scrolls on the bottom of the screen.
“I don’t care how many Taco Bells and swimming pools there are, holidays still suck,” says Boyce. “You have to get (holidays) out of your mind and try not to think about it.”
As Vice President Biden holds meetings and reporters file stories about car bombs near Kirkuk, Joint Bae Balad is as silent as the night before Christmas after children are tucked in bed.
Green and red lights flicker over fake Christmas trees glistening inside the compound’s coffee shop. Stockings and plastic snowflakes are taped to the walls.
Movies or the videogame Rock Band play on a projector screen, and popcorn is popped in microwaves.
Charlie Company has already had their party for the month. They celebrated Christmas in July on the first -- the day after June 30, the official troop pull out -- with Buffalo wings, vegetable trays and non-alcoholic beer.
Now, Independence Day passes by slowly.
At night, soldiers hunker down for another quiet night on the airfield.
Despite the boredom, everyone hopes there will be no fiery explosions in the sky tonight.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly. | More stories | Visit her Web site