Friday, May 07, 2004

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.

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