For DL guardsman, it's all about the seeds
Things aren't so bad in Iraq for Guardsman Danny Blaha of Detroit Lakes.
He said the Iraqis are OK, especially the kids.
The work is rewarding: He likes keeping people safe and seeing them rebuild their lives.
And the food's pretty good -- except for one thing: It's impossible to get enough Giants sunflower seeds.
So when Giant Snacks of Wahpeton -- the maker of the Giants larger-then-average sunflower seeds -- received a call for help from Blaha in Iraq, the company responded immediately.
"We've gotten several requests (from Iraq)," said customer service representative Kris Gress. "We always try to send out what we can to support the troops."
After an email exchange with Blaha, the company shipped 41 cases of its new "salt and pepper" flavor seeds to his mother, Cindy Blaha's, house in Detroit Lakes. It also shipped four cases of regular flavored seeds. Each box has 50 sample size bags of seeds about the size of a candy bar.
The company actually offered to ship nearly 200 boxes of seeds, but Blaha wasn't sure how big each box would be and thought it might be a bit much.
The over-sized sunflower seeds aren't just flavorful; some soldiers use them to stay awake during long shifts, and others use them to help quit smoking, Gress said.
"A lot of guys in-country, you ask them what they want in their packages -- Giant dried sunflower seeds," Blaha said. "You can get smaller (brands of sunflower seeds in Iraq) but not the Giants," he added.
The company wasn't sure how to ship the seeds to Iraq, so it ended up shipping them to Cindy Blaha's home in Detroit Lakes instead. Never mind that she was in the middle of trying to sell the house.
"After this happened I called my mom to tell her, 'by the way, you're getting a present next week,'" Blaha said.
The UPS man who delivered the boxes thought maybe Cindy Blaha was going into business.
But Cindy, a member of the Family Readiness Group that supports National Guard troops overseas, took it all in stride.
The sunflower seeds will be sent off to Guardsmen in care packages over the next several months.
Blaha, 21, grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated with the class of 2003. He was active in theater, cross-country skiing and golf and joined the National Guard in 2002. He is due to leave Iraq in March and will have fulfilled his military obligations 18 months after that.
Blaha said the training In Mississippi prior to leaving for Iraq was helpful, mostly to help get Guardsmen into "the right mindset" needed for going to war.
The training also helped meld the local Guard unit into a more cohesive force. Prior to the Mississippi training, there tended to be two camps -- those who had served as peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina a few years ago and those who joined the unit later.
"It was definitely something we needed to go through, and needed to build a comradery," he said. "One group had been to Bosnia and knew what that was like, and the rest of us just had basic training."
That overseas experience in Bosnia proved very helpful for the whole unit, since the veterans of that mission were able to explain to the younger men how to do a long-distance fix on problems back home, Blaha said.
Blaha said he feels good about his unit's mission in Iraq.
"We're providing these people a safe place to live," he said. "One of the common questions I hear (while home on leave for several weeks) is 'should we be there?' For myself, I definitely have a justification I understand. It's definitely good for the people and it's something that needs to be done."
Village kids are now able to play in the streets in Blaha's area of Iraq, something that was too dangerous a year or two ago, he said.
U.S. troops have helped provide medical services and establish schools for village children, he said.
"It opens your eyes," he said, "and you know why you're there."
In the early morning hours, before the noise of the base's helicopters and trucks begins, Blaha said he can sometimes hear the haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer far in the distance.
Asked about the smells of Iraq, he shook his head and smiled.
"When you get off the plane there, you definitely should bring an extra nose, because yours will get burned out," he joked.
Living quarters are 7-foot by 15-foot metal huts. "We call them 'tin cans,' they look like those shipping containers you see on trains," he said. Each houses two soldiers, and they are comfortable as long as the air conditioning is working.
"If a generator goes out, you go outside, 'cause it percolates pretty quick in there," he said with a laugh.
These days, troops have all the body armor they need -- and then some, Blaha said. With protection for arms, chest, midsection and elsewhere, the armor weighs a good 55 pounds and can be a bit like wearing a suit of armor into battle on a 100 degree day. But it is not optional, so soldiers wear it, he said.
The food on base is good, and is available four times a day, he said. The base PX also sells snacks.
"Some of the bigger bases, like in Kuwait, have McDonald's and Burger King in them," he said. "I haven't seen a McDonald's in months. Our (base) is smaller and doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but it has everything you need -- everything but Giant sunflower seeds."