On a cold, clear night at this base about 70 miles east of Baghdad, the “Hollywood gang” sits down to play a game of spades, like thousands of soldiers before them. It’s Christmas Eve, and the men of Bravo Company are celebrating by the light of diesel-fueled tiki torches.
They call them the Hollywood gang and their call sign is also “Hollywood,” because these Army reservists hail from Southern California.
Only Spc. Winston Ahn actually lives anywhere close to Hollywood, in Koreatown. Sgt. 1st Class Donald Gaitan resides in Whittier, Capt. Joe Asher in Playa del Rey, Spc. George Young near Inglewood and Sgts. Ryan Schwartz and Tristan Besa in Riverside.
Hollywood, however, belongs to all Californians when they’re thousands of miles from home, in a desert near the border with Iran.
They have come down to this base near the town of Balad Ruz to drop off Young, who was to go on leave the next day. The soldiers’ time off is staggered. Young, 24, studies computer information systems at DeVry University in Long Beach when he’s not in Iraq. On Christmas Day, he should be sitting on an airstrip, waiting for a flight. And that, he says, is just about the best present he could get.
At their regular post on a smaller base about 140 miles to the north, the troops serve as liasions to the local population, traveling daily in Humvees to visit farmers and sheiks, Sunni and Shiite Muslim alike.
They build wells and vaccinate kids in one of the less volatile areas in Iraq. Even so, they have been shot at a few times and have also been the target of a roadside bombing attack.
On Christmas Eve, however, they are partying.
Before settling down to the card game, about a dozen men gather in the light between their housing on the base: rows of cargo containers like those one might see at the Port of Los Angeles.
Schwartz, who is replacing Young at the northern base near the town of Tuz Khurmatu, has picked up his guitar. He breaks into the Eagles classic “Hotel California” and his fellow soldiers sing along.
“He’s our own little jukebox,” Young says.
For a Christmas celebration among soldiers in Iraq, it’s not too bad.
During their brief stay here, the members of Bravo Company 426 Civil Affairs Battalion are sharing the containers. Inside are bunk beds, metal lockers and a heating element. It’s a little tight, but they don’t seem to mind. When Young leaves, he’ll clear out his corner of the container, taking home his beloved bedding.
His girlfriend sent him new sheets, and he brought a special pair of pajamas and pillows from home.
“People do whatever they can do to feel at home,” he says.
Ahn, 27, sleeps in a saggy bed in the middle. When the door opens, he’s the one who gets hit by the cold desert wind. But this is luxurious compared to their regular quarters at the smaller northern base known as Bernstein, where they live in bunkers, with only cold water for their morning showers.
Ahn, who sells car radios back home, serves as medic, driver, grenadier and linguist for the group. He also can impersonate movie stars, sometimes speaking with a perfect Scottish accent.
Since they got to Iraq three months ago, Ahn has been wearing a Lance Armstrong yellow rubber bracelet. His sister gave it to him just before he left. It has a double meaning, she told him: “Live Strong.”
He misses his sister and the rest of his family. And his fiancee. He’s bought a Webcam so they can all watch each other opening presents.
Schwartz, 29, is the least homesick of the men on the night before Christmas. At home, he is studying at Cal Poly Pomona to be a teacher. He had never traveled outside the U.S. before, and speaks thoughtfully about what he has seen in the last three months.
Being in Iraq, seeing poverty in some villages -- “kids with no shoes. It’s 40 degrees, and I’m wearing all my gear” -- has also taught him about home.
“If we were home right now, we’d be inundated with ads and magazines,” he says. He’s glad to miss the holiday shopping.
“We’re not going to have the big Christmas Day sale at PX here, which is OK,” he says. “Maybe we don’t need it.”
Gaitan lives in another container. At 39, he’s older than the others. He tolerates the antics of Besa, half his age. But then again, he’s a teacher in Pico Rivera and used to being around youths.
“Well, doh,” Besa calls out, as he slaps his cards on the table, taunting his opponent. “Bring it down. One more, baby, one more. Uhh, big dog, locking it up.”
The Hollywood gang also includes Capt. Craig Bowser. But he’s from Dallas. By the time the card game begins, he’s gone to sleep in his container.
Asher, 32, teaches ROTC at the University of Southern California and has known Besa since he was 17.
Besa will turn 20 next week. He is nicknamed Tiffany, or Tiff, because he had to wear a purple robe in a meeting with a local sheik. He doesn’t like the moniker.
“Aw, you already played that,” he says when Asher teases him gently.
Tristan was driving recently when the team hit a roadside bomb. Although no one was seriously wounded, he’s still a little shaken.
Asher is the group’s motivator and the source of the tiki torches. He’s also the provider of a “hot spot” for wireless Internet access that works best on the roof. He has been checking his holiday e-mail sitting there, overlooking the base.
Beyond the military barracks, there is open land, dotted with tiny villages. Farther east, the mountains herald the border with Iran.
The Hollywood gang is far from home -- on the map and on the calendar.
But it’s not too bad, Schwartz says, because at least they have each other.
Sometimes, the best cure for homesickness is a game of spades.
And sometimes, that’s good enough.