A Battlefield Tradition Since 2007
By Marshall Senkarik
The Al-Doura district of southern Baghdad: The large package was one of the first I had received since deploying to Iraq less than a month before. No one who had our overseas address had either the time, or the inclination to put together something so quickly. Most soldiers received cookies from their wives, or photos of their girlfriends, but my parcel was from my friend Brian, a Captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. I had left the airborne community just a few weeks earlier, trading in my own maroon beret and jump pay in order to join the 4th brigade, 10th Mountain Division before they deployed to Iraq—my first time in the sand box.
There was a note attached to the package that read simply: “No gentleman should be without his cigars.” Inside was a small, darkened cherry wood box, lacquered to a glossy finish that would not last. It was a humidor. There we were, the 100 or so men of Creek Company, 2-4 Infantry, living in a fortified, burnt out shell of a house known as a COP (Combat Outpost) where we ran operations on a 24 hour schedule. We ran mounted patrols in HMMWV’s (The ubiquitous Humvee—the armored jeep that has been on every news channel covering the Iraq War) during the day and foot patrols at night, tracing the banks of the Tigris River and over watching IED locations. We slept on flimsy mattresses pushed against the walls, with our body armor and rifle never outside arms reach. But amid all this, I had the humidor: a small piece of home that was a true luxury.
Lighting up a cigar after a patrol, or at the end of a long mission, was more than just a way to relax. It was camaraderie. It was reflection. It was a 45 minute vacation from everything going on around us. Those who smoked with me were varied and diverse. Most smoked cigarettes and were surprised when my well worn butane lighter blazed up their smokes. Others were casual cigar enthusiasts who were glad to have company and stored their puros in my humidor. There were even a few pipes that came out to join our circle. Non-smokers would join us to bum a cigarette and escape for a while. I doubt there was an American in Al-Doura that didn’t walk over at some point and join our conversations. A few men brought out collapsible camp chairs to sit in. Others jumped onto the hoods of a HMMWV, or sat in the gravel. Most of us just leaned against the outer wall—the slabs of concrete that separated our little safe haven from what was, at the time, the most violent and dangerous city in the world.
Within the COP, under the watchful eye of our machine gun teams on the roof and with cigars in hand, we felt like nothing could touch us. Only a few times were we forced to abandon our sticks for body armor and rifles by incoming mortars or rockets. For the most part, the Al-Qaeda cells in our area seemed to be respectful of cigar time. More than once I lit up a puro at planning or training meetings with officers from the Iraqi National Army, as they passed around a hookah. My cigar was met with smiles and good cheer.
The humidor itself required constant upkeep. Sand was everywhere, and the blazing heat and dryness of the desert did little to help the quality of my cigars. Any of the cigars purchased on those rare trips into the Green Zone for a resupply had to be “rehabilitated” for a while in the humidor before I would even consider smoking them. Part of the water in my canteen went to refill my humidifier every few days. I would occasionally remove my cigars and wipe down the thirsty cedar lining to keep it moist. More than once I polished the reddish cherry box with whatever it was I could get a hold of to help keep the finish. In the end, the weathered look just added to its charm.
As the months drew on and our boots became more worn, it became clear that the surge was working. We were winning. The difference between the security situation when we arrived compared to how it was when we left was like night and day. Every patrol now was a joint patrol with either Iraqi Army or National Police. We were actively conducting more and more raids now, acting on intelligence that was freely given from the population, rather than simply reacting to IEDs or attacks in our area. We opened schools and built bridges. We snatched up bad guys before they even had a chance to strike. To them we were spooks, specters, things that went bump in the night. It felt good to see the difference we were making, and I will argue with anyone today who thinks the war in Iraq was anything less than a victory.
Of course, all our gains were cause for celebration. Alcohol is illegal for American forces in Iraq, and for a line Infantry unit out in a COP, no one would drink even if we were allowed to. Too much could happen at any moment, and a soldier needs his wits about him. What we did have though, were cigars. Many an early morning was spent with cigar in hand reminiscing about the past night’s “activities.” New plans were evolving over veils of smoke, both for future operations, and for when we got back home.
By Christmas of 2008 we were so close to that goal we could feel it. My regiment was being relieved in place (RIPed) by elements of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and we were running joint patrols with them in order to hand over our area of operations. As fate would have it, one of the company commanders in our area was the very captain who had sent me the humidor at the beginning of my tour. Not wanting to mail it home, and considering the nobility of the initial gesture, in my last few weeks in Iraq I sought out my friend Brian and bestowed upon him what had become known as the Combat Humidor. By the end of January I was back in the States, but a tradition has been born.
Brian moved around more than I did during his tour, but something that he always took with him was his cigars. One of his favorite smoking locations was on a fractured, crumbling fountain, on the patio of a burnt out palace that served as his headquarters.
That fountain was a perfect metaphor for Iraq: once a place of beauty, it was dingy, covered with cracked and broken tiles, full of dirt and non-functional. It didn’t lend much of an air of sophistication to a group of filthy, exhausted Americans enjoying one of the few vices available to them at the end of a long day. Typically the temperatures were well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dark, and several times we had to dive for cover due to incoming mortars. On at least one occasion, despite eating a face-full of moon dust while diving into a nearby bunker, I kept my cigar safe to wait out the explosions. It’s amazing how you can do without the necessities of life, provided you have the little luxuries. Every man needs his outlet. Mine was a Romeo Y Julieta No. 3.
Brian’s other smoking spots included the roof of a high rise hard stand building, that had once been an eight story barracks or Iraqi Army administration center before the invasion. It offered an incredible view of the city—and all that entailed. “From there, we could hear the sharp “whoomp!” and see the flashes of IEDs from much the east side of the city, occasionally see tracers, and watch the power flicker off and on in different areas as the local generators failed, ran out of fuel, or were shut down periodically. Sadr City was only about 5 km north, and there always seemed to be activity going on up there. Mostly it depended on how much dust and filth was in the air.” The building was high up, and within a fortified area, but “we only went up at night and generally stayed somewhat concealed and covered just on the off chance that the one Iraqi remaining in Baghdad with any marksmanship ability should take an interest and make a lucky shot”
“Toward the end, I moved into what we called ‘the JDAM building’ because we handed my previous building over to the Iraqis. I wish I had access to my photos from inside the building. It was a huge 4-story concrete building with a large courtyard that had received multiple JDAM strikes and was all cock-eyed (a JDAM is a Joint Direct Attack Munition, commonly known as a smart bomb or a bunker buster. Typically laser guided and command detonated). You could literally climb to the top, see the entry of the JDAM, follow it through a couple of floors, watching the holes get bigger, then see where the bomb detonated. No sane person would even enter such a building in the United States, but there I lived, along with a handful of others. The courtyard was full of rubble, and I used to sit on a window sill and look at the destruction while enjoying a Macanudo Maduro. No other cigars have tasted the same. I guess you just had to be there.”
By November of 2009 Brian’s tour with the 82nd Airborne was coming to an end. The Army can be a small place though, and every time a unit is relieved there are chance meetings and reunions of old comrades. Before returning home, Brian handed over our humidor to our friend Eric, an ordnance officer he knew from Ft. Bragg, and I had known from Ft. Benning.
It was under Eric’s care that the three of us decided the “Combat Humidor” truly was a tradition that should not be broken, and that it should stay overseas, shifted among friends and brothers in arms, for as long as we are fighting. Eric first put the plaques on the humidor, each stating the name, regiment, and location of the humidor’s owner during their particular tour. Eric, the humidor, and celebratory cigars were there at the border in 2010, when one of our Stryker Brigades crossed over into Kuwait: the last American unit with a combat mission to leave Iraq. There are, of course, still Americans there, even infantry brigades and other combat units, but our focus has shifted to training the Iraqi forces and transferring power to them. This became known as Operation New Dawn.
The next recipient of the humidor was Joyce, an MP Officer I had known from West Point, and that Eric had served in Korea. With Eric due to rotate home, and Joyce already in Afghanistan, the humidor needed a new owner, and Joyce needed a little luxury.
“Cigars bridged the gap for me, allowing me to break into the all male circle of a Brigade staff. Of course, it led to some awkward moments. In one case, someone had bought an enormous novelty cigar which was ‘displayed’ on the table in front of me. I was curled up in my fleece, and with my fleece cap, very incognito. Sure enough, a very senior officer approaches the table and starts commenting on the cigar’s ‘other uses.’ We kept it together until he triggered the laughter, talking about how the humidifying solution must be just slick enough. I died laughing. ‘Oh. Joyce. I didn’t see you there.’ ‘No issues, Sir!’”
“My particular luxuries were Blue Label cigars, and Greycliff G2s. I was also the ‘travelling humidor’ for lots of people who wandered through my AO (Area of Operations). They’d transfer a few smokes to the carefully cultivated humidity while they went to meeting or whatever, and more often than not, would forget them on their way back out.” This allowed her to build up quite a collection.
“Our smoke sessions were mostly in front of the headquarters, hanging at the picnic tables, solving the problems of the world. The roof of one of the admin building was popular, until the whistle of rockets reminded us that we were still in a war zone. Cigars were also great for favors, and getting to know people. CAO’s cherry bombs went over well with EOD teams (EOD is Explosive Ordnance Disposal—the military’s bomb squad teams) during their Labor Day BBQ, and the cognac infused torpedoes were welcome Christmas presents.”
Especially in an environment where alcohol is forbidden. Joyce’s tour in Afghanistan meant that the Combat Humidor had now seen service in three different countries, four tours of duty, two separate theatres of operations, and three distinct military campaigns: Operations Iraqi Freedom, new Dawn, and Enduring Freedom. Not a bad distinction. The humidor is currently on its fifth tour, in Kuwait City with its most recent owner, Catherine, a signal officer that Joyce and Eric both served with in Korea. There are brass plaques riveted onto its face denoting each tour, and it has grown to be a far more significant and meaningful tradition than I could have imagined.
Eventually I would like the humidor back. I was the original owner, and it has great sentimental value. It would make an excellent display piece and be the topic of much conversation, but alas, it has duties elsewhere. Any thought that the Combat Humidor’s actual combat time is coming to an end has already been dismissed. Brian, now a Major in the 2nd Infantry Division, is soon to rotate to Afghanistan, advising and assisting the Afghan National Army. He will need the pleasures of a fine cigar far more than I, and to open a box decorated with the scars of shared service can be comforting beyond measure. They are more than just cigars at that point. It becomes about brotherhood, comradeship, and memory. We have all lost friends to our chosen profession, and though we will never forget them, the humidor and the cigars we smoke seem a fitting, and very personal memorial. It will be a long time before the Combat Humidor retires from active service. In the event Catherine rotates home before Brian deploys again, I doubt the humidor will see American soil. Between us there will never be a shortage of friends in harm’s way who are in need of a good cigar.