Well-deserved R&R

Two local soldiers feel fortunate to be home for the holidays

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Sgt. Eric O'Hara (middle) is currently spending his two-week break at home in Steamboat Springs from his tour of duty in Iraq. O'Hara serves in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne division in the city of Tikrit, about 90 miles northwest of Baghdad.

— Worrying about the next powder day is the least of Eric O'Hara's concerns. He's just glad to have a break from daily patrols through the Sunni city of Tikrit in Iraq.

The Steamboat native and sergeant in the Third Brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division said it has been "pretty hectic" in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, since the former Iraqi president's death sentence.

"The attacks on forces have really picked up," O'Hara said.

His brigade of 25,000 troops has lost 16 soldiers. O'Hara has been fortunate - he has not suffered any casualties within his eight-man squad or platoon.

O'Hara recently found out that his mid-tour leave fell over the holiday season.

O'Hara said he was pleased with the surprise and plans to enjoy spending time with family and friends, relaxing and maybe even doing a little skiing.

Spc. Tony Haight also managed to get his two weeks over the holidays. Haight and O'Hara are high school friends who graduated from Steamboat Springs in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and were assigned to the same unit, the 1st Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Haight was deployed from Fort Bragg, N.C. and landed in Kuwait for a few weeks in August before being stationed at FOB Summerall, near Bayji, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

"I got lucky," Haight said. "I haven't had Christmas with my family in a while."

Set to the difficult task of rebuilding a nation, Haight said the first thing he noticed about Steamboat was all the prosperous new downtown construction projects.

Like O'Hara, back in Iraq, Haight said he typically goes out on around nine to 10 combat "counter-I.E.D." patrols a week.

"We'll go out at nighttime and look for suspicious guys digging at the side of the road," Haight said of the four-hour street patrols where his 17-man platoon will scour routes throughout Bayji in a convoy of four armored Humvees. Haight said he'll encounter a live Improvised Explosive Device a couple times a week, but his platoon has yet to encounter an ambush or suffer a casualty.

Haight was also quick to point out his company's work in providing food and supplies to local villagers and training the Iraqi Army.

In O'Hara's experience, this work is where he sees the greatest divergence of the popular media's portrayal of the situation.

"They're not showing enough of the good things, like we're just rolling around getting killed" O'Hara said. "We're defending ourselves. We're pumping money into their economy and we're setting up the Iraqis, standing them up. The joint patrol that we work with is completely integrated. I definitely think it's pretty close and we're making progress."

From the immediate handshakes that O'Hara received at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to the care package that Haight received from students at Strawberry Park Elementary, where he was once a student, both soldiers wanted to emphasize their appreciation for any kind of support.

For now, the O'Hara and Haight are just happy to be home.

"It's nice to see snow," Haight said.

Support the troops

Just because the holiday season is nearing its end doesn't mean local residents will be stopping their collection drives for our troops overseas.

"I seriously think that even the littlest thing helps keep our guys' heads up and will help bring them home safely," said Merkin Scott, whose brother, Tad, is a Marine helping train the Iraqi police force in Fallujah. In addition to organizing a collection drive, Scott is seeking financial donations from businesses and individuals to benefit the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund (www.semperfifund.org) and the families of injured soldiers at Maryland's Bethesda Hospital. E-mail Scott at merkinwsp@comcast.net for questions, information and specific troops' addresses.

Scott has a collection box outside of City Market for people to drop off items to send to troops.

Scott is not alone is his efforts. Molly Hibbard, Marci Valicenti and Lynne McNasby have been collecting items for troops since 2002 and will continue to do so at Prudential Steamboat Realty, 610 Marketplace Plaza, or at Steamboat Real Estate, 635 Yampa Ave.

Johnny B Good's Diner, 738 Lincoln Ave., works with the Steamboat Springs High School's Operational Smile program and is still accepting donations and individual addresses to send to our troops. Organizers stress the need for monetary donations to handle hefty shipping charges as well as care package items.

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