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Baghdad Diaries, Part 2 of 3

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Length: 2:17

Officers serve Christmas dinner in the dining hall at Q-West military base.

Stacey Masters looks like she's got the holiday spirit. She's swapped her Army issued fleece hat for a furry Santa cap and she's spent the afternoon grilling hamburgers and hot dogs with her buddies from the 423, a transportation company that specializes in escorting truck convoys on some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. But the outfit is a game face.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas. It just feels like another day." Masters tells me, her cheeks pink from hours of grilling. "I guess we're just doing the best we can, especially us NCOs [non-commissioned officers] just trying to keep everyone's spirits up."

Masters is a Sergeant in the third platoon of the 423, a company better known as the roadrunners whose motto is "Have guns, will travel." On any given night the roadrunners have someone on the road. Tonight is different though. It's Christmas and the company commander has given everyone the day off. For once, they're all home.

Home, for now, is several rows of windowless steel containers surrounded by a perimeter of 12-foot concrete blast walls. This neighborhood of the base is known as the Hilton because the containers here are a little bigger than most, but the place has as much character as a prison yard. The soldiers have done what they can to personalize it; there are jerry-rigged satellite dishes and porches which are actually just wooden pallets dressed up with carpeting and plastic lawn furniture.

"Can you call the guys from third platoon?" Masters asks one of her friends, as she tends to the burgers. "Tell them the food's getting cold."

"It doesn't feel like Christmas. It just feels like another day."

The food is not actually getting cold. Most of it is still cooking, but Masters knows what it will take to lure the rest of her company out of their containers and into the cold. It may be Christmas, but for a lot of people on this base, it's not a day to celebrate. It's a day to sleep.

The base dining hall is serving an elaborate Christmas dinner tonight: pot roast, turkey, glazed ham, mashed potatoes, turnips, sparkling apple juice, and a VIP visit from a general. But most of the company is hiding out in their containers. Those that venture out are huddling around three small grills set up between the side of a container and a long wall of concrete.

Q-West and Convoys

The 423 lives in the southwestern corner of Q-West, a tiny US military base about 40 miles south of Mosul. Surrounded by miles of empty desert, Q-West feels like an outpost in this war. The landscape reminds me of northern New Mexico; the landscape flat lines to the horizon and the sky feels enormous. Like many of the US bases in Iraq, this one used to be an Iraqi military base under Saddam. The landscape is dotted with reminders of that past -- crumbling single story buildings made of clay and stone, pyramid-shaped bunkers and a small mosque that sits across from the Army's PX, a convenience store that stocks everything from Dove soap to the latest DVDs.

It's quiet here. There hasn't been an attack on the base in months. The public affairs staff tells me that's because the US and Iraqi Army have managed to keep up good relations with the surrounding villages. Those villages are also incredibly small. The nearest one has a population of about 150 and is a good 20-minute drive from the perimeter.

The soldiers have nicknamed this place Sleepy Hollow. After a couple days in Baghdad, I'm grateful for the sleepiness. But the name is misleading because many of the soldiers here don't have very quiet lives. They're spending more time outside the wire, on the road, than they do on base.

A humvee escorts a convoy. The sign reads, "DANGER - STAY BACK."

Q-West's primary business is transportation and the base is in many ways like one big truck stop. Convoys come in from the north from Turkey, or from the south from Baghdad and Tikrit. Chains of trucks 20-80 trailers long snake their way in and out of the Q-West gate at all hours of the night. The schedule means that soldiers are often either hyper wired or dazed when you see them on base, depending on whether they're returning from a mission or waking up from a nap.

"There is no rhythm. Our rhythm is no rhythm," says Master Sergeant Robert Brostoski, head of the 423's third platoon.

The convoys run mostly at night, which means that the soldiers of the 423 have to sleep all day before a mission so that they can stay awake behind the wheel. On their drives, they maintain a steady diet of energy drinks and snacks -- chicken jerky, Doritos, Hot Pockets -- and keep up the chatter. As long as they're all talking, they know that they're all awake. But staying alert mile after mile in the darkness is tough, in large part because there's no telling how long they'll be on the road. A typical trip to Camp Speicher down near Tikrit can take anywhere from three to 12 hours. It all depends on how much goes wrong.

A Christmas Barbeque

Back at the barbeque at the 423's Hilton, Sergeant Masters is multi-tasking the meats: turning the hot dogs, flipping racks of already charred ribs and opening a new bag of frozen hamburger patties. She's one of the organizers behind the barbeque and she's taken on the role of hostess.

"They call me Mama Regulator. Someone's got to take care of them," Masters says.

At 25, Masters outranks most of the guys here. She's been in the Army for eight years already and spends most of her nights commanding gun trucks, the heavily armored humvees that escort trucks through roads pockmarked by IEDs. Her job is to scan the road for anything out of the ordinary -- a pile of rocks, a dead dog, a trip wire, anything that she hasn't seen on the road before.

For someone who spends her nights looking for IEDs in Iraq, Masters is remarkably sunny. In the civilian world, she'd make a great elementary school teacher -- warm and persistent, the kind of teacher who always manages to make you try harder. It turns out the Sergeant is studying to be a massage therapist back in Wyoming. Before she got called up, she was working at Home Depot and planning on opening her own massage therapy practice. It's a strange match, a massage therapist in the seat of a humvee. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize that I have no idea who would make a good match for this kind of work.

It's a strange match, a massage therapist in the seat of a humvee. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize that I have no idea who would make a good match for this kind of work.

As the sun fades out, the frost sets in. It's high desert and once the sun goes down, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees. Everyone is gravitating towards the grills and a small bonfire is starting to blaze up in a steel drum set up near the concrete wall. A few spare pallets are broken down to feed the fire.

Private First Class Michael Sjaardema is part of the circle warming up by the bonfire. He's standing alone chain smoking when I ask him how his family is spending Christmas back home in Colorado.

"My family is probably getting ready to go to my aunt's house now," he says. "All 150 of us pack into this one little house. It's great."

"This is my first Christmas away from home," he adds. "It sucks."

Michael tells me that he called home earlier to talk to his family and his mom cried, again.

"Every time I call she cries," he says with a half smile.

One of the many bunkers left from the Saddam era.

There is no shortage of Christmas events on base. A lot of people seem to be working overtime to keep the holiday spirit up. There is a candlelight Christmas ceremony, a Christmas play written and directed by a soldier, carolers singing on the back of a flat bed truck. The KBR [Kellogg, Brown and Root] contractors who staff the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center are giving out stockings stuffed with candy to everyone who walks through the door. But the 423 seems to prefer to keep their holiday within the family, which for now, means their unit.

"It's all the rest of the guys that make it bearable," Specialist Charles Kelly says holding a yellow plastic plate with a half eaten hot dog on it.

Kelly is standing in a corner in his grey and blue Army PT uniform, basically a tracksuit in Army colors. The fourth platoon is his family now, Kelly says. He has a five year-old son back home in Minnesota. He missed his son's last birthday and is going to miss the next one too. But Kelly only has three months left and he's focused on getting home.

A few months ago he was riding behind a couple of friends on a convoy mission when they hit an anti-tank mine.

"Me and my [truck commander] were playfully arguing and I looked forward and saw a bright flash. The semi truck hopped in the air and turned on its side," he says.

"Sometimes you want to freeze up. But your friends keep you talking. Everyone puts on a big show and it's good, because what if the guy next to you broke down and started crying? So everybody else keeps you going. Everyone's smiling."

"Everyone puts on a big show and it's good, because what if the guy next to you broke down and started crying?"

It's pitch black out. The moon is just a sliver in the sky and the only light flickers up from the flames of the bonfire. One of the guys in fourth platoon pulls out his harmonica and starts blowing out strains of "Deck the Halls." As the last of the hot wings are finished off and the last of the cigarettes are smoked, someone calls out, "Fourth Platoon!"

Everyone stops what they're doing and forms a tight circle around the platoon sergeant who has just arrived to deliver orders for the next mission. They're headed out on the road again tomorrow. As the sergeant lays out the details, there are no grumbles, just nodding heads, and finally a resounding "Hooah!" as the platoon breaks out of their huddle. As the guys of the fourth platoon wander away from the glow of the bonfire and back to their containers, someone mumbles, "It's going to be a long night."


We are home now. Thank you for all your support.

Denver, Colorado
I am very proud of the soldiers who are serving in harm's way. I know SFC Robinson, he is a true leader and I know he will bring the soldiers home safe. I have had the honor to work with him in the civilian sector, he is a true professional. We are proud of all of the members of the 423rd Transportation Company, hurry home.

- Englewood, CO
I am glad that my son got to hear his father's voice. I play this all the time so my son can hear his father talk. He was sent overseas when our son was about 6 months old; we communicate all the time with the power of the internet; I am so glad that daddy is home now. Our son knows his fathers voice and we are enjoying spending our time together again. We are very proud of him.

Golden, CO
My best friend is part of the 423rd TC. I miss him. I will be glad when he is back home.

Terri Bertelson - Port Angeles, WA
Sgt Stacey Masters is my niece. After reading this article I can only be more proud of who she is and what she is doing over there. Her bubbly personality is a plus that's going to get her and those around her through the tough times away from home. Love you Stacey, Terri and Woody.

Lue Chevarie - Portland, Maine
My wife and I are very proud of each and every one of you for doing what you do. It takes a very strong and brave person to be there, dealing with what you have to deal with. We have one son Bennett there now and within a month we will have a second son Joseph there. We are very proud of them. As I am an ex-military person myself, though never seeing hostile sources, my heart goes out to all of you. We pray everyday that you all come home safe and soon. God speed to all of you.

Jay Thorington - POWELL, WY
My son Sam is somewhere there, inside Q-West, with the 524th. He went on one of those road trips. We miss him, but are very proud of him. We're from Wyoming, too. I've been searching for info on Q-West, since finally discovering this place. His mother and I hope it stays sleepy. God bless all who are serving.

Robert Brostoski Sr. - Meshoppen, Pa.
Msg Brostoski is my son. He comes from a military family. I am very proud of him and his platoon, and the entire unit. We pray for they're safe keeping daily.

Great to follow the 423rd story from the front lines to the rear where I have been privileged to speak with, assist, and monitor the well-being of those brave Wounded Warriors. We at the 651st RSG look forward to welcoming home our Warriors from the front lines as we have those Wounded Warriors in the rear. The Lord bless you and keep you.

Jeri Berry - Denver, CO
My son is in the 423rd; he called me on Christmas as well. I didn't cry. I'm glad to hear the unit was able to make some fun happen. He was one of those who had to go out the next day. I thank you for taking the time to share their story.

Thomas Masters - Casper, Wyoming
Words can't express how proud I am of the 423rd and my wife Sgt. Stacey Masters. The task they have been given is not an easy one and the cost that they have paid is high but everyday they carry on with honor. I am so glad we at home have been given this glimpse of the lives they live over there. It has helped me a great deal to know that they are doing well in spite of it all. I love you so much Stacey, stay strong and I will keep the home fires stoked until you return.

RedLake, Minnesota
I would like the U.S. soldiers that are serving our country in Iraq and other countries to know that my thoughts and prayers are with them always. I also have a nephew serving in Iraq and I think and worry about him every day and night. THANK YOU VERY MUCH TO OUR VERY BRAVE SOLDIERS.

Red Lake, MN
I would like the U.S. soldiers that are serving our country in Iraq and other countries that my thoughts and prayers are with them always. I also have a nephew serving in Iraq and I think and worry about him every day and night. THANK YOU VERY MUCH TO OUR VERY BRAVE SOLDIERS.

West Des Moines, IA
When will this air? As I stated earlier, my son is with the 423rd!

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thank you for your interest in our online series, "Baghdad Diaries." At this time, there are no plans to broadcast this story. It is a web-only feature of the FRONTLINE/World website. Check back soon for video accompanying Dispatch 1 and Dispatch 3 of this series.

Nancy Janssen - West Des Moines, IA
Thanks for the story. It is great to see a positive story about our guys! My son, Spec. Bryce Hardt, is with the 423rd TC at Q-West; he is the Armorer for the company. He totally believes in the job that is going on over there and we support him and all his follow soldiers. We have never been more proud of him. We love him a lot and can't wait for his and the other soldiers' safe return home. Good job.

Vera Liddiard - Denver, CO
I have a brother in the 423rd and I am very proud of him and E-dog out there. It is great to hear about their time in Iraq. It's also great to hear some of the realities of their day-to-day lives. It may be a little hard to swallow, but that's what they are doing and we should all respect them and be proud of the way they are choosing to spend their time protecting the US from Iraq and helping the IA. I love you guys and I pray for you daily keep up the good work and come home safe to us!

Jalen Kelly - Red Lake, MN
I am that son that my daddy talked a about. I am five years old and in kindergarten. My Papa and Gramma take care of me while my dad is in Iraq. My dad is my hero cause he loves me so much, but he loves his country too. I miss him and he calls me all the time. When he comes home, Dad and I are gonna go shopping for toys and things. Thank you world for appreciating my Daddy, especially to the Red Lake people who thanked my daddy. Love you Dad; your son, Jay

Camille Jensen - West Valley City, UT
I'm the Grandma of one of the 423. It is good to read and better understand what is happening there. Especially good to know of the living conditions and that you share and support each other so well. Grandma sends her love to all of you.

Addie Pyne - Chandler, AZ
Thank you for your article. As has been said before, it really gives us a feel for what they are dealing with out there. My husband is in the 423rd, 4th Platoon, and he hasn't shared a whole lot. I want to let the soldiers know we pray for them and are so grateful that they are fighting so that we don't have to live in fear. And to my hubby, I love you!

Danette Randall - Newport Beach, CA
This story was presented in a way that most of us at home are not really aware of how our soldiers/sons & daughters live on a day-to-day basis. My son Seth Randall is with the 423rd T.C. It truly is an honor to know that our 423rd is a tight team. As Seth's mom, I know he always tells me that all is well. Seth, I love you & can't wait for your tour to end. To all our brave soldiers, know that you are all in our prayers and wait for all of you to make a safe return home to your loved ones. God bless you all and or great county, the USA!

Sheila Paeth - Arvada, CO
I am very proud to say that my son is a member of the 423rd! This was our first Christmas apart, and he spent his 21st birthday there, too. Of course I fear for him every day. But, couldn't be prouder. I could not have been blessed with a better person to be my child. I not only love him but, I LIKE him too. He is cheerful and caring, and I know that he is doing his best for his country AND his fellow soldiers to make the best of a bad situation. R & R is coming! There are so many of us looking forward to him coming home. God speed son!

Davai Elliott - Colorado Springs, CO
I am a wife of one of the soldiers in the 423rd TC. I was really happy to be able to see a little of what goes on. There is no amount of words possible to explain how grateful and thankful we are for their dedication, hard work and service to this country. At the same time, it is heartbreaking that we are all unable to spend the holidays together. But you just have to learn how to manage. I know he has a job to do and he loves doing what he does. Thanks a million for the story. I say a prayer every night for my husband and all of the soldiers who are putting their life on the line everyday. I pray everyone comes home safe.

Lori Niegisch - Casper, WY
Stacey, I love you so much, and totally miss you! As for the others there, be safe, take care, and get back safe! You too, Miss Stacey. Take care to everyone; you're in my prayers.

Charles & Judy Spencer - Phoenix, AZ
Sgt.Stacey Masters is our step-granddaughter. And we are all so very proud of her. We love you very much Stacey! Thank you Frontline for this story.

Cindy Duplex - Sioux Falls, South Dakota
I read this story and it brought tears to my eyes. It gave me perspective on how they really are doing over there. My husband Sgt Duplex is with the 423rd 4th platoon. It is great to see that the whole unit gets some recognition. I love him and miss him so much, but here at home we know that the mission is not done. Here at home and throughout the USA these guys know how proud we are of them. Thanks for sharing this unit's story.

Mike Peterson - Colorado Springs, CO
As a former member of the 423rd and a soldier who was on Q-west just a year ago doing that same mission, I really feel for you guys. I hope and pray all of you make it home safe and sound. It's great to hear about a military unit so close to home, and believe it or not I wish I was back in Q-west there with you guys running missions. Keep the hammer down Roadrunners! SSG Pete

I'm the grateful mother of one of those harmonica players in the 423rd. My son's duties are much the same as Sgt. Masters and I appreciate learning more about what it is like. My prayers are with him and all the 423rd. God bless them!

Jack Aultman - Casa Grande, AZ
I am Sgt. Stacey Masters father. Her brother, two sisters, step mom and myself are very proud of her and miss her very much. It is nice to read this story and learn a little more about what is going on over in Iraq. We love you Stacey - stay safe!

Stacie Caldwell - Colorado Springs, CO
I just wanted to say this story is very touching and a bit sad. My brother-in -law is in camp Qwest and I am glad to hear that they had a nice Christmas dinner, even though we missed him. Good luck to you all and keep safe. We miss you and come home soon. LOVE YA!

Randy Kinbgird - Ponemah, MN
To all of our valiant warriors - may you come home safe and sound; and to Charlie Kelly who is from Red Lake Reservation - keep safe. We are praying for all of you serviceman and women.

Lois Johnson - Ponemah, MN
Specialist Kelly, migwetch for serving so that the great RED LAKE NATION remains FREE!!!! I pray and place my offerings for the safe return of all our soldiers. Hopefully, you will return in three months and not have your mission extended....

Roxanne Desjarlait - Red Lake, MN
Thanks for the story. My own son is with a MNANG unit in southern Iraq, and from this story I have an idea of what it is like for him, doing similar work. He won't tell me what his experiences are because he thinks I will worry too much. I read your article on RLNN. Keep up the good work. Charlie, Stuart and I say hello and best of luck; we are thinking of you and all Red Lake men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First Baptist Church - Gypsum , Co
Thank you, Stacey, and all of you. We are fortunate to have "angels of mercy" like you to help keep us safe. Thank you for all you are doing, and may God keep you all in His wonderful care. You remain in our church prayer bulletin and in our love and prayers. Again, Thank you. The family of First Baptist Church in Gypsum, Colorado.

Betty Foster - Yuma, AZ
Sgt. Stacey Masters is my granddaughter. The story made the family very proud of all the kids away from home. It is hard to believe that Stacey is one of the oldest; to me she will always be a little girl. We send love to all.

Matt Stratton - Erwin, TN
Just more affirmation of my belief that today's service personnel are among the best ever. I am so grateful for & proud of you people. As someone said in a previous post, "No matter what you hear or read, we are behind YOU 110%." Thanks from an Air Force vet from the late 70's and early 80's.

Karen Murray - Aurora, CO
Thank you so much for this story. I have been supporting this troop with a lot of junk food since they arrived. It is good to have an idea of the soldiers' day-to-day lives, as I worry and pray for them each and every day. Thank you for taking the time to write such a well-written and descriptive story on my friends. I miss you SFC Robinson!

Pam Christensen - Rio Rico, AZ
Sgt. Stacey Masters is my daughter. This tells us so much more than she ever let on to. We are all very proud of her. She has several cousins in the military, one of which is a Marine; he too is stationed over there. We are proud of them all.

Damian Robinson - Albuquerque, NM
To my father: Well, I just want to say that I love you as well as the rest of the family. We hope to see you soon. Thank you for everything. To all the troops: thank you for everything. Look out for my old man and everyone come home safe.

Nici Miller - Medford, OR
I have been a very close friend of Sgt. Stacey Master's since 7th grade. She is more like a sister to me than just a friend. I think this is a great article; thank you so much for taking the time to be with the 423rd during this time of year. This definitely helps all of us at home understand the everyday life of our troops and loved ones in Iraq.

Robert Brostoski - Qwest, Iraq
Good job, Lee. I think you painted a pretty accurate picture. My soldiers enjoyed doing something new, and enjoyed your company. We look forward to seeing the TV spot. Let us know if you want another trip on the road.

Melissa Allan - Kunsan, South Korea
Stacy Masters is married to my cousin. I'm stationed in Korea and will be home this summer. I look forward to seeing you, Stacy, and swapping war stories. Although my Air Force stories probably will seem like nursery rhymes!

Charles Kelly - Red Lake, MN
I have a son in the 423rd. Thank you for running his comments. There was a misprint; my son is from Red Lake, MN, not Montana. He is loved and missed so much and we are so proud of him and all the soldiers. Thank you.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thank you for the clarification and we apologize for the misprint. We are updating the story now to reflect your son's correct home state.

Paul Hermance - Pensacola, Fl
Retired Army 1SG. Spent a few Christmases, like you all are doing. Keep up the good work, no matter what you may read or hear; the American public is behind you 110%.

Mary Nash Robinson - Greenwood, LA
Wonderful to hear that the base area is quiet. Christmas without my son, Marques, was difficult, too. But what you are doing is noble and very much appreciated. Please stay safe. God bless.

Marvin Brown - Colorado Springs, CO
As a former member of the 423rd, I really miss you guys and wish I was there with you. I pray for each and every one of you every night. I can't wait to see my old friends like SFC Robinson and the rest of the members of the 423rd TC THANKS. SSG BROWN, RETIRED

Thomas Moore - Wellsville, UT
I have a son in the 423rd. Thank you for running this. It is appreciated a lot. I was in the Navy in Nam.

- Qwest/ SLC, IRAQ/ Utah
As a soldier, I thank you for the time that you spent with our unit. Thanks for coming out here to do a story on the soldiers out here and let them know a little piece of what we go through. Not many do this. I know that my family appreciates it too.

Thomas Hebert - Americus, GA
Keep up the good work; did two tours in Vietnam.

David Vincent - Payson, UT
Lee, I am the 423rd's Command Sergeant Major back in the world. I appreciate your story and its positive spin. I look forward to seeing more on our soldiers and the program when it airs. Let me know so I can see it. Thanks again. Be safe and tell my soldiers hello. CSM David Vincent 259th CSSB, USAR

Arvada, CO
As the wife of a soldier in the 423rd TC, in Iraq - it is really appreciated that you have taken the time to report the jobs these proud soldiers have undertaken. Not only does it help the soldiers in the field to know someone is interested in what they are doing, but it also gives the families of those soldiers another perspective. We are able to see their lives in Iraq through your eyes. Thank you for taking the time to report this story.

Ron Wilmoth - Eastpointe, MI
This is a very good story. This is where my wife is. This has given me more information about what it is like for her. We love and miss her so much here back home.