Like many military operations in Iraq, July 4th celebrations began at dawn.
To beat the brutal summer heat, soldiers wanting to participate in a 10-kilometer fun run at Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad, gathered at 5:30 a.m., when the temperature dropped to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The run was the first in a series of events giving soldiers — not on guard duty or combat patrol — a chance to enjoy the most American of holidays.
Soldiers attending Capt. Jim Combs’ church service heard a sermon about independence. The Protestant pastor focused on the Book of Exodus where Moses and his followers had fled slavery in Egypt, but were suffering in the wilderness. He said that according to Bible verses, there was a lot of “grumbling” among the Hebrews while they were in the desert.
“Do you ever grumble?” Combs asked the congregation. His message was to pray for the leaders and have faith.
At midmorning, the 1st Cavalry Division kicked off a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Dressed in gray army T-shirts and black shorts, 12 teams took turns on the concrete, outdoor court.
While sitting under a camouflage net trying to stay cool before the game, Spc. Robert Moore of New Haven, Conn., said the events would help him make it through the holiday, even if it didn’t live up to his usual celebrations.
“It relieves the stress and takes you away from Iraq for a little bit,” Moore said, as hip-hop music played in the background. “Back home, I’d be at a barbecue, drinking a Heineken and doin’ it up.”
The only beer soldiers in Iraq are allowed to drink is nonalcoholic, but at the mess halls, cooks set up outdoor grills to barbecue T-bone steaks, burgers, hot dogs and chicken. Cakes and pies were decorated in red, white and blue icing at the division mess hall, where James Brown played over the speakers and CNN showed on television screens.
For the combat soldiers on duty, there was no let-up. U.S. commanders did not want to slow their operations on July 4 for fear insurgents would use the day to stage a symbolic attack.
“We’re going to maintain offensive operations,” Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade. “We’re going to continue to push the enemy.”
But he said there would be other celebrations later in the month to make up for the busy schedule.
For those who could enjoy the holiday and wanted to stay cool, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department set up a video game tournament inside air conditioned tents. Dozens of soldiers took seats in front of television sets to test their skills.
Later Sunday, soldiers were scheduled to gather at an Army-Air Force Exchange Service shopping mall for a talent show followed by two bands, one rock and roll, the other Latin.
The one thing missing was fireworks.
“At least not from our side,” one officer wisecracked.