03/01/2006 — KIRKUK, Iraq — The Easter Bunny left a suspected mortar round outside Bravo Company's patrol base Sunday. (It turned out to be a piece of pipe.)
A box of candy eggs came in the mail from Idaho. (The soldiers devoured the candy before the holiday arrived.)
Iraqi interpreters cooked the soldiers a turkey dinner. (Ham wasn't available.)
The Muslim call to prayers replaced Sunday service hymns.
Welcome to Easter in Iraq.
For the soldiers in Bravo Company of the Idaho Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team, Easter Sunday was mostly another work day: patrols, guard duty and paperwork.
First Lt. Aaron Jarnagin, a Mormon, started the day with a short gathering with six fellow LDS soldiers.
"You just don't have as much time to reflect as you would normally," Jarnagin said.
He said he wished Easter was more of a holiday on the patrol base, home to the 100-plus soldiers of Bravo Company. But he understands why it's not:
"No. 1, our families aren't here. And No. 2, we still have our missions to perform."
"It feels like any other day," said 2nd Lt. Sergio Soto of Nampa, who led a nine-man foot patrol in the Kirkuk market Sunday. "I just realized yesterday (that Sunday) was Easter, and I'm Catholic. My interpreter reminded me."
He thought about his son, Diego, born on Christmas Day 2003. Diego was hunting for Easter eggs at home while his father patrolled Kirkuk.
"It's his first Easter," Soto said. "Well, his second, but during the first one, he was too young to have fun with it."
Sundays are usually busy work days for soldiers; a chaplain visits later in the week from the main U.S. air base nearby to hold services for Bravo Company.
On Sunday evening, as chants from the final call to prayer sounded through the patrol base, the soldiers' interpreter, Jalal, arrived with a holiday dinner. A huge round platter contained two baked turkeys on a bed of rice. The turkeys were split into sections — heads still attached.
Side dishes included flat bread, onions, olives and cabbage. A milk crate was filled with fresh bananas and oranges. Dessert was a two-tiered angelfood cake with meringue frosting.
"Please join us," the interpreter told soldiers in the company's headquarters building. "I hope for all of you to have a happy time in Iraq and for all of you to go home safely to your families."
Such holiday meals are a tradition, Jalal said.
"Every holiday we cook something for the troops," he said. "Because you want these guys to feel like they're home. To make you feel a little bit better. I know you miss your families."
"They think turkey is the food all Americans eat during holidays, so they're making us turkey," said Jarnagin.
The soldiers dug into the turkey, daring each other to take a bite out of the head. No one took the challenge.
They ate quietly. Then, nearly in unison, the soldiers said, "Very good, Jalal. Thank you very much."
"This is a good way to end Easter," Jarnagin said.
Statesman reporter Roger Phillips and photographer Kim Hughes are spending a month covering the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team in northern Iraq. Phillips is a reporter on the staff of Idaho Outdoors. Hughes is the Statesman photo editor. Questions or ideas for Phillips and Hughes? E-mail local@idahostatesman. com.