On his beat, he keeps it upbeat.
Camel spiders as big as your palm, searing heat and dust so powdery a helicopter's rotors churn it into an obscuring storm - that's the short list of things Chief Warrant Officer Chris Pace won't miss when he leaves Iraq for good next January.
Pace, a Eugene native and a career Army helicopter pilot, has a brief reprieve from it all with two weeks home from the war. A tall 42-year-old with the rugged, chiseled look of a soldier, Pace has served since graduating from Churchill High School in 1982.
He's been stationed all over the world - Germany, South Korea, Italy, Bosnia. He was among the first soldiers to cross the berm from Kuwait to Iraq at the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003. He ferried troops in a Black Hawk helicopter.
The worst part of that duty was the loss of a crew who crashed while flying in a sandstorm just before the war started, Pace said Friday.
"Training in that environment was not what we were used to. We also had to learn how to get our heads in the game," he said.
He transported soldiers and supplies during the first two months of the war before being transferred to Italy and then to Germany. He returned to Iraq last January with a unique assignment: ferrying performers to bases as entertainment officer.
"Troop morale is definitely important," he said. "It can be a lonely place, and my commanding general has given me a mandate to get out to his warriors."
Pace has brought in wrestlers and country music acts Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels. He has escorted comedians Kathy Griffin, from "My life on the D List," and Mike McDonald from "Mad TV." Recently, 12 Denver Broncos cheerleaders made the rounds. "They love cheerleaders," he said.
Because he travels so extensively, Pace has a fairly good idea of how soldiers are doing. Despite extended and repeat tours, their morale is generally good, he said.
"Overall, troops are very highly motivated, but it's a mixed bag," he said. About 80 percent are doing fine, he said, but the rest find the war too big a burden on themselves and their families.
He said U.S. soldiers may have a more positive outlook than Americans generally, whose view of the war is skewed by media reports that focus on the negative, such as insurgent attacks and body counts.
But soldiers see that the Iraqi government is functioning, that the Iraqi army and police forces are taking on more responsibilities and that public infrastructure is being rebuilt.
"I think it's going well. It just takes a long time. It takes a lot of dedication, commitment and sacrifice," he said.
"Enduring Patience," might be a more appropriate name for the conflict than "Enduring Freedom," Pace said. Despite the political debate over how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, he believes Americans have the patience to see it through.
Still, it's hard on the soldiers, hard on their families and harder to persuade soldiers to stay in the Army, he said, adding that he hasn't seen any firm numbers but believes divorce rates among those serving in Iraq are up.
For Pace, just now, the war is a world away. Relaxing on the wooden deck at his in-laws' home on several secluded acres off Lorane Highway, he was enjoying the 70-degree shade and the company of family, his wife, Tamara, and his 14-year-old son, Robert. He said they plan to spend some time at the Oregon Coast before he heads back to Iraq.
His flight home was a two-day trip that routed him from Baghdad through Kuwait, Germany, Atlanta and Portland. When he worried that a delay in Atlanta might make him miss his Eugene connection, the flight attendant called ahead to hold the plane. On that flight, he and another soldier just back from Afghanistan were applauded by passengers, who let the soldiers disembark first.
He said he's received a lot of spontaneous thanks from strangers, once from a young girl who asked her mother, "Is that one of the soldiers who is saving our world?"
People seem most interested in knowing how hot and how dangerous Iraq is, he said.
While recent temperatures there have topped 115 degrees, he said he suffered more in the 90-degree humid weather in Atlanta.
As for danger, Pace said no bullets have pierced the helicopters he's piloted but he's seen tracer bullets on some night flights.
Tamara said she worries less about him now than she did at the start of the war but still can't bring herself to follow the news. As a military wife, she has plenty of experience saying goodbye to her husband; it's one of those things that gets harder - not easier, with time, she said.
Pace's tour ends in January, and he'll retire from the Army in March. The family plans to build a house on property adjoining that of Tamara's parents, a serene spot with many trees, most of them tied with yellow ribbons in place since the start of the war.
Son Robert has his sights set on the day his dad stands down.
"Just having him around," he said, "I'm looking forward to the whole family being together."
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|Title Annotation:||International; This Army warrant officer brings much needed fun to soldiers in Iraq|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jul 29, 2006|
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