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Chicago Boys In Iraq

    "If the envelope is thick enough, anything's possible.'' - The Chicago Boys motto

I love this story from the Chicago Sun-Times. Annie Sweeney is writing a series about a Chicago National Guard Unit in Iraq, and Jon Sall took some amazing photos of the Chicagoans in Iraq. I'll post the story in full in case it disappears into the archival abyss (plus there may be a Sun-Times strike soon).

Photo by Jon Sall
'We're the Chicago Boys'
October 17, 2004

CAMP ANACONDA, IRAQ -- Chicago is a city of porches, corner bars and characters fashioned from the neighborhoods that define us -- from Rogers Park on the North to Hegewisch on the far Southeast.

Go a little bit farther south and a lot farther east, you'll find another neighborhood, this one behind concrete bunkers on a sprawling U.S. military camp where mortars thump in the night and people go to work in the morning to fight a war.

Here, a group of Chicago-based Army National Guard guys -- and two women -- have taken an assignment many figured was coming, leaving behind families and regular jobs to spend a year in Iraq.

They are Black Hawk helicopter pilots who left the city unnoticed in early January, packing up supplies from their hangar at 63rd and Central at Midway Airport, to serve a year in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But they came with a plan. Along with equipment they would need to do their job -- fly missions low and fast over a country under attack by insurgents -- they also packed two refrigerators and lumber from Home Depot.

If they were coming to the desert for a year, Chicago was coming with them.

"We're the Chicago boys,'' said Capt. Daniel C. Lyons, commander of Bravo Company. "If you look at us, you'll notice we have little tabs [on our helmets] that say Chicago Guard. Well, there's no Chicago Guard. It's the Illinois National Guard. But we're known as the Chicago Guys. We're a breed apart. We're from the big city.''

Midway is home to Bravo Company At Camp Anaconda, just outside Bravo Company's headquarters, the Black Hawks line up in the dry heat that radiates off the dark bodies. The helicopters, first used in 1978, are sleek and fast. In Iraq, they fly low enough to watch a farmer tilling his fields, a woman sheathed in black on a lonely road and clothes blowing on a line.

Bravo Company -- a part of the Army Guard's 1st Battalion 106th Aviation Regiment with 42 members -- has been at Midway since 1986. But the airport has been home to some type of guard helicopter combat unit since the late 1960s.

Bravo Company has flown to natural disasters around the region, including the 1990 Plainfield tornado and the 1993 Mississippi and Illinois floods.

Today, Bravo Company is thousands of miles from home fighting a war. Missions range from transporting generals to air assaults.

"The majority of Chicagoans are not aware we have a Black Hawk unit,'' said Dale Glowacki, 44, who grew up in Bridgeport and now lives in Brookfield. "I grew up in Chicago and was not aware there was a helicopter unit in Chicago until I joined it when I was 25 years old.''

'An amazing group of people'
The company arrived in Iraq in March with the rest of the 106th, a battalion of four companies -- two from Decatur, one from Jefferson City, Mo. and Bravo Company -- the Mad Dogs.

They are a paramedic, engineers and attorneys. Hispanics and African Americans. There's also a union carpenter and electrician. A 23-year-old farm boy who has relocated to the city's new South Side, a short cab ride from Rush and Division. An investigator for the IRS. Vietnam vets. A guy from the water reclamation district. And of course, a former bartender.

They embrace mottos such as "Any friend will loan you money, but only a true friend will help you hide the body'' and "if the envelope is thick enough, anything's possible.''

They laugh hard. They're a little cynical. One is nesting, hanging wind chimes and other tchotchkes; another is hunting mice around the hangar. Some crew partners bicker like married couples.

"Everyone is at the extreme of idiosyncratic,'' says Sgt. Tom Pullin, a crew chief. "But it's an amazing group of people.''

The Mad Dogs landed in Iraq on a roughly 12-square-mile base of sand, a sea of white trailers and large anonymous buildings with names like "d-fac'' where food is good enough, but plenty dull.

There are creature comforts -- an Olympic-size swimming pool, a movie theater with first-run films and indoor gyms.

It has the charm of a suburban mall.

But not on the block behind the bunkers at Bravo Company. Here, carpenters and electricians built a neighborhood.

Large, square concrete slabs pave the way between wooden buildings the company built. Wood porches with wind chimes and deck chairs offer respite, if not a superb view. Patio seating is built into the porches.

In the middle of it all is Bill's Place.

A large black and white sign swings above the entrance of the corner pub named for William Chaney, a member of Bravo Company who died from a non-combat-related illness in May. He was 59.

Smoke and near beers
An evening visit finds Staff Sgt. Stephen Corcoran of Lisle behind the bar with a smoke, glasses perched on his head, offering non-alcoholic beer for $1 from the two fridges. There's a couple in civilian clothes smoking and just blending in. A television murmurs above the bar; there's a dart board on a wall. Games and books line the wall by the booth, where the chess boards sit. Cases of pop and near beer gather dust. Teapots and dishes from local markets sit on shelves.

A "liquor license" signed by "Richard J. Daley'' is tacked to a wall. On another is the building permit -- this one signed by "Inspector Gadget" -- recognizing the structure commonly known as a bar to be made of wood and "bits of other materials.''

"This is a neighborhood tavern,'' said Pullin, 37, the former bartender who lives on the Northwest Side. "You've got books, you've got games. You've got fake beer. You've got TV. We don't have a pizza oven, but we've got popcorn. We've got darts. . . . What else makes a bar a bar? It's atmosphere really. What makes a bar is the regulars. Our company is the regulars and then anybody else we drag in here.''

The connecting "Chicago Theater" is wired for surround-sound and has a full-size movie screen and stage. It's painted in dramatic red and black stripes and has handmade sconces and lighting on each of the six risers.

"We're Chicago city guys,'' said Lyons, who has moved from the city to Hawthorn Woods. "We're da Bears and da Cubs. The union guys. Look at it. We build a bar, a neighborhood bar. It's 120 degrees out. Guys are sweating and tired, and they can't see straight. But they go do this kind of stuff.''

It took a village
Bravo Company members say everyone helped build Bill's Place and the theater -- installing doors, putting up walls or acquiring assets from around the base.

Members use the word family again and again when they talk about the group, people from all over the city who have shared each other's homes and families. Most were raised in Chicago, said Javier Jimenez, who grew up in Little Village.

But the work also bonds them, said Jimenez, who works at a security firm and now lives farther south in the city with his wife and two daughters.

"You have to trust each other. In the Black Hawk, you almost have to think about what the other person is thinking,'' Jimenez said. "We trust that the other person is doing what he or she has to do in order for the aircraft, and crew, to be able to function as one."

Stress weighs heavy
When Bravo Company left Chicago last fall, no one seemed to notice. That broke Lyons' heart, given the sacrifices they were about to make.

"What we do here is very demanding and you do it every day,'' Lyons said. "Monday has no meaning. Monday, a Saturday, a Sunday has no meaning. They all blur into one. That kind of stuff wears on guys.''

There are other stresses. Military pay usually doesn't match regular salaries, and some might be passed over for promotions. Long-established family routines were disrupted, and some were hit with unforeseen crises.

When Lyons was about to leave Fort Knox, he got a message that his daughter, nearly 2 at the time, had been diagnosed with kidney cancer that would require immediate surgery. He flew home, and Taylor Anne had surgery the day he arrived. After she responded well to treatment, Lyons returned to Bravo Company. Sitting in Bill's eight months later, Lyons fights tears while talking about the ordeal.

Bravo Company members say when stress from home or from the job weighs on them, they think of what they see when they fly.

Saddam Hussein's large palaces and a country left in ruins. Children waving arms, reaching out for candy the company sometimes scatters from the Black Hawks. It's moments like these that make them feel hopeful they are part of positive change for Iraq.

Yet there are doubts. Is Iraq in any better shape? Will it ever be? Does candy make a difference?

Some don't see it yet. And in the meantime, a Bravo Company member angrily points out, he has missed a birthday, a graduation and a confirmation back home.

He's venting, hanging out on the porch with friends.

Bravo Company flies hostage to freedom
The chatter from the five radios was busy on Sept. 21.

Black Hawk pilots from Bravo Company were bouncing around Baghdad, an hour into an evening mission.

I sat behind the pilots, peering down at the passing countryside through night-vision goggles, wondering who was down there and what was that cluster of buildings that looks like the Robert Taylor Homes.

Suddenly the radio chatter got interesting.

Baghdad Radio was calling "Horserider 50'' -- the call sign that night for Capt. Daniel C. Lyons and his crew -- to tell them to radio their command center for an emergency mission change.

Five hostages at a helicopter pad in Baghdad awaited evacuation. My heart raced. This was the day the second of two American hostages -- Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong -- were reportedly beheaded and the fates of several other hostages was unknown. There we were, circling Baghdad, five souls below waiting to be freed.

The story was partly true. There really was just one woman, who had been held for 16 days.

Canadian Fairuz Yamulky, 38, had been freed a couple of hours before and was coming aboard our helicopter to go home.

There we sat, on a helicopter pad in Baghdad, waiting on a hot night to see if this really would happen.

And then it did.

Car headlights streamed across the pad, and a woman in a white dress got out. She made her way to the helicopter. I was strapped into a front seat; Yamulky was in back. I was told she didn't want to talk.

Wearing body armor and a headset, I had little room to move. I strained my neck to catch a glimpse of her. She looked tired. She smiled sweetly at someone. She chatted.

We circled onto another pad at a camp in Northern Iraq and landed. Yamulky got off. The crew continued the mission after the brief delay, getting to bed eight hours later.