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Shared cigars bring Marines together in Fallujah

28 May 2006 | Cpl. Brian Reimers

A thick billowy cloud of white smoke lingered in the air above the relaxed Marines.  It was quitting time and Marines were enjoying a ritual of sorts

Marines and sailors from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, take time at the end of their day to enjoy a good cigar at the chapel here.

“It’s great,” said Sgt. Russel R. Ellman, an administration chief at Headquarters and Service Company.  “It is kind of like having a barbecue back home with all of your buddies.”

The men gather at the building one day a week to release some of the stress they encounter throughout the week.

“It’s just a great way to bring the guys together in a relaxed environment,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas S. Pratt, a religious programmer who helped to get the weekly event started. “It can be very stressful for the guys out here, especially without their families.  This allows them to come together and joke around to help ease all of that.”

Pratt met with Navy Lt. Marc J. Bishop, the chaplain here, and discussed the idea to hold a cigar night.  Before long he was on the internet looking for sponsors to donate cigars to the cause.

“I saw a picture online of a bunch of Marines in Iraq smoking cigars and having a good time,” said Pratt, of Denver, Colo.  “I started doing my research and found a place that would hopefully send us some cigars.  Within a couple weeks, boxes and boxes of cigars started coming.”

Flyers and word of the night quickly spread around the camp. After two of the nights, Marines here started showing up by the dozens.

“When you put people in a social environment, they do not only talk about what they do, but who they really are,” explained Bishop, a Catholic priest. “It allows me to interact with Marines in an informal, less stressful environment, rather than engage them while they are in their work settings.”

The crowd varies from bonafide cigar aficionados to Marines just looking to relax and enjoy the company.  But it’s not all smoke.  Cigar nights are entertainment too.  Marines with acoustic guitars, harmonicas and joking personalities fill the chairs on the second story of the chapel every Saturday night.

“Even though it’s dedicated as cigar night, not everyone smokes cigars,” said Bishop, from Billerica, Mass. “The environment itself allows them to talk about themselves rather than work and show off their talents.”

“Some of the Marines show up with their guitars and everybody sings along,” added Ellman, a 28-year-old from Federal Way, Wash. “It definitely helps to build camaraderie and keeps the morale up.”

Many Marines are quite impressed with the quality of cigars that are available to them for free.

“There are some great cigars to smoke too,” said Lance Cpl. Kurtis P. Backiel, a cigar night regular, of Clinton, Mass. “They have a variety, everything from your regular store-bought cigar, to some pretty expensive ones that are harder to come by.”

Cigar night has become part of many Marines’ schedule here, but Pratt wanted to be sure that the Marines spread through out the different forward operating bases in the battalion’s area of operation were also getting the chance to puff on a nice stogie.

“I gave a bunch of cigars out to the Marines and sailors out at the FOBs, so they can enjoy the same thing that we have here,” 28-year-old Pratt said. “It’s great that we can have it here, but those guys deserve it too.”

Bishop said Marines are starting to count down days until their next cigar, a sort of benchmark to their time left in Iraq.

“It gives them something to look forward to at the end of the week,” 33-year-old Bishop said.

During a recent cigar night, one Marine said, “Hey look at it this way, it’s not how many days we have left in Iraq, its how many cigar nights.”