Camp Black Jack now serving non-alcoholic beer, relaxation
CAMP BLACK JACK, Iraq — At night, aglow from a couple of strings of Christmas lights, long-neck beer bottles on the ramshackle bar beckon like a desert mirage to soldiers trudging across the camp’s barren expanses.
A sign over the bar reads, “It’s not the alcohol. It’s the camaraderie.” Another sign, with rope letters and a rope border, reads, “The Pallet.”
Obviously, with soldiers in Iraq under General Order No. 1, The Pallet couldn’t be a bar in the real-world sense.
“It’s more of a watering hole, I guess you’d call it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Carl Ingram, the operations noncommissioned officer for the 1st Cavalry Division’s 15th Forward Support Battalion, and one of The Pallet founders.
It’s not a conventional bar because customers can’t even “buy” a drink. Instead, they make donations, then choose between two or three non-alcoholic beers including Becks, Bitburg Drive or Budweiser NA.
And to hoist a cold one here, the management suggests — make that insists — on a toast to fallen comrades at a little shrine featuring a helmet, a flag and a sign reading, “Reserved for Our Fallen Comrades.”
“Pay your respects before you sit down. You have to pay your respects,” said Spc. Theo Jones, who volunteers as bartender and disc jockey when not soldiering with the 1st Cav’s 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment.
“It doesn’t have to be anything complicated,” Ingram said, “just a silent moment for those who fought and gave their lives.”
After that, management suggests customers take a load off.
“The rule is to not to talk about business,” Ingram said. Politics, music, sports, philosophy are just fine, he said.
“We talk about our lives outside the Army and what’s going on. Get the guys out of what’s going on around them,” said Ingram, a history buff and an acute observer of world politics.
The few square feet of bar, memorial, stools, chairs, tables and milling-around space seem almost detached from a base where in just three months, a high percentage of the soldiers have seen combat in one form or another in the Baghdad neighborhoods, and where mortar attacks are a daily event.
“You gotta’ have somewhere to go,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Orsulak, with 3-82 Field Artillery. “You’ve got to have someplace to unwind.”
The Pallet may be the only, well, whatever it is of its kind. The name “Pallet” was inspired by the pallets of goods always moving around behind the tiny Army and Air Force Exchange Services post exchange.
Tom McEvoy and Dave Daily, two retired Marines and current AAFES employees came up with the idea, Ingram said.
With the blessing of the 1st Cav’s 2nd Brigade commander, Col. Michael Formica, and Brigade Sgt. Maj. Neal Ciotola, AAFES employees and soldiers worked to refine the idea into The Pallet. The club committee includes Maj. (Dr.) Paul Krantz, McEvoy, Daily, Ingram, Jones, Orsulak, Anthony Soares, Sgt. 1st Class Antonio White and Danny E. Williams.
Committee members share duties such as stocking the beer, putting ice in coolers and CDs in the jam box. Jones is most often the friendly face of The Pallet, handing out cold ones and changing CDs.
Members plan on collecting memorabilia from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cav’s rotation, then maybe starting a Pallet back in the real world, Orsulak said.
Pallet founders want to capture the spirit of “Cheers,” the ’80s sitcom set in a Boston bar — a place soldiers can go where everybody knows their name, Ingram said.
Actually, no one is going to know their names with 15,000 potential customers from the division. At least at first. That’s the cool thing, Orsulak said: “It’s a different crowd every night.”
So far, the crowds are small.
“Intimate,” is how Orsulak puts it. With no way to advertise, the crew knows it’ll take time for word of mouth to work its way around Black Jack, which is a huge section of the even larger Camp Victory North, 1st Cav headquarters in Baghdad.
Orsulak and Jones often wave in passing soldiers. Or curious soldiers are drawn to lights and clusters of beer drinkers. Spc. Jaime Saintignon said she and her group were just walking by on a recent evening when they saw The Pallet.
What they found is “a taste of home,” said Saintignon, with the 320th AG Postal Company.
The memorial to fallen comrades is “fantastic,” said her co-worker, Spc. Chris Pauer.
“We hope to pull more people in,” Ingram said. “Get them to stop thinking about home ... and about war.”
If soldiers are looking to get a buzz, good luck to them.
If they’re looking for a warm welcome and a cold brew, this is it, Ingram said.