The Cleveland Cavalier Girls perform at Camp Taji on Thursday night. At right, 19-year-old Rhema Helm shows her moves for the crowd of roughly 1,000.

The Cleveland Cavalier Girls perform at Camp Taji on Thursday night. At right, 19-year-old Rhema Helm shows her moves for the crowd of roughly 1,000. (Anita Powell / S&S)

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, A pack of unusual-looking creatures descended upon Camp Taji on Thursday night, to the delight of its denizens.

The Cleveland Cavalier Girls, the dance squad for the professional basketball team, made a stop at the camp north of Baghdad as part of their 13-day tour of bases in Iraq and Kuwait.

At Taji, the dancers put on a half-hour show that took all the innocence out of such standards as “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” (To say nothing of their black-PVC-hotpants finale, to the tune of Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.”) They also signed autographs and posed for photographs after the show.

Tour manager Jody Pucello said the squad jumped at the chance to perform for deployed soldiers, even though they were not paid extra for it.

“They’re not doing this for the money, that’s for sure,” he said.

The mostly male audience — which easily numbered over 1,000 — clearly appreciated the girls’ efforts. A sample of audience feedback: “I love you!” “My God!” “Can I get a backstage pass?” and the ever-expressive “Woooooooooo!”

Later backstage, dancer Kristen Bickel, a 21-year-old Ohio native, said the soldiers have, overall, been gentlemen.

“They’re really respectful,” she said. “Of course they whistle and hoot and holler.”

While the women seemed to conform to the soldiers’ expectations, the dancers said their image of Iraq didn’t turn out quite as they anticipated.

“Everything you see on the news, you have this image of what war is supposed to be,” said Suzanne Ortiz, 22. “It just wasn’t what I expected.”

Pride on the insideWhen the newly designed Army Combat Uniforms rolled off the line, many officers lamented the loss of the branch insignia, traditionally represented by a patch on the left lapel.

But Capt. Casey Conners, a combat engineer who commands Company E of the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, couldn’t bear to part with his castle-shaped patch, the mark of the engineer.

So Conners hit upon an innovative way to show his branch pride: he bought one of the lapel-sized patches and had a tailor sew Velcro to the back. Then he slapped it to the underside of his new uniform’s mandarin collar, on the left side.

Why bother?

“It’s a matter of pride,” said the 31-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., native. “I’ve been an engineer in the Army for six years now. I’m not going to give up my castle just because they’re not going to let us wear them anymore.”

‘Buck buck’ for luckHow does Lt. Col. Al Kelly tell his Stryker apart from others on Baghdad’s streets?

By looking for ‘buck buck,’ the fake plastic duck he’s mounted on the front hatch of the massive vehicle.

“Iraqi kids call it ‘buck buck,’” he said, imitating the sound a duck makes.

He’s also decorated the vehicle with a horseshoe, and a toy eagle.

“He has an eagle eye,” Kelly said. With the eagle, he said, “We spotted a lot of [roadside bombs] before we hit them.”

And what about the fake mallard?

Well, Kelly explained, after being hit by 13 roadside bombs and four snipers over the last year, “I figured I was a sitting duck.”

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