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Capt. Thao Reed of the 1st Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division practices her setting skills with girls from the Al Basarah High School on Wednesday. The girls won the city volleyball championship last week.

Capt. Thao Reed of the 1st Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division practices her setting skills with girls from the Al Basarah High School on Wednesday. The girls won the city volleyball championship last week. (Leo Shane III / S&S)

BAGHDAD — When Sgt. Christian Burga went on leave last week, it caused a near mutiny at Combat Operating Post 838.

Several soldiers said their morale dropped the day he left. A few started sniping at each other in the dining hall. The company leader worried about a hunger strike.

It’s hard to lose a good cook, even for a few weeks.

Burga, a New Jersey native serving with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Brigade, has become a favorite of troops in the unit. The 13-year soldier insists he does nothing his fellow chefs can’t do, but admits he’s a little more of a showman about it.

"I always try to put some love in the food," he says, laughing. "I put on some Bob Marley, and I talk to the guys as I cook. We have fun."

But Burga said he also takes the job very seriously. "After they go on a patrol, they need some hot chow and a morale boost," he said. "So we try and do that."

He credits his staff of three with helping him as he rotates between posts, but also admits he has a few specialty dishes of his own. He’s perfected combat stir fry seasoning, he says, and makes the best Philly Cheesesteaks in Iraq.

He told the troops on his way out that they were in good hands, giving a few tips to the crews left behind. But when the company first lieutenant surveyed the troops the day after his departure, most said the new cooks will take some getting used to.

"The problem, sir," one soldier said, "is this food has no love in it."

Burga is due back at the post next month.

Home court celebrationAl Basarah Girls High School won the Baghdad volleyball championship on Wednesday, and got to celebrate on their home court.

That’s a big deal, because this is the first time the tournament was held in the city. In the past, the teams had to go to Najaf to find a safe enough location to hold the games.

"Nowadays, the security is better, so the girls can play here," said Yusera Naj, supervisor at the high school. "It’s a lot better for the girls."

Troops from the 1st Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division attended Wednesday’s showdown with Manhal High School, bringing jerseys and sports supplies for both teams. The donations are part of the unit’s "Rashid Olympics" effort, to get more young men and women playing sports.

"Basically, we want to give them a reason to stay in school and not join the insurgency," said Capt. Thao Reed. "We’re out here every two or three days with another group, meeting with them and encouraging them to keep up with their teams."

Both the players and the teachers admit that the girls still aren’t up to most U.S. high school sports standards — at one point, the game was halted when a setter put the ball onto a nearby roof — but they also readily admit that isn’t really the point.

When 16-year-old Zahra Diya Abulkhlaiq misplayed a ball into a teammate’s back, she cringed for a moment. Then she and her teammates laughed, and went back to enjoying the game.


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