By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Frank English has been anxiously awaiting this day for months - it's demolition derby time at the Great Northern Fair.
"I love the derby," English said. "I can't wait to get out there."
This 29-year-old traveled thousands of miles to compete in the Jaycees Demolition Derby. English, a specialist with the 639th Quartermaster Company of the Montana Army National Guard, is stationed at Tallil military base near Nasiriyah, Iraq, a half a world away from his Montana home. He's back in Havre on a two-week leave and luckily his time off coincided perfectly with the annual demolition derby.
English is a mechanic with the 639th, a Kalispell-based unit of 117 soldiers who specialize in fuel and water supply and equipment maintenance. The company performs a variety of supply missions, providing support for up to 18,000 soldiers in Iraq.
"We're called a combat support unit," English said. "We haul bulk fuel for 5,000-gallon tankers and repair vehicles like tractors and Humvees. We also work with water purification and supply issues, that kind of thing."
Before being called to active duty, English traveled across the country, working as a driller on oil rigs. He had trained with the 443rd Quartermaster Company but was called back to Havre in October to fill a mechanic position with the 639th.
"We were kind of like spare parts for other units," English said about the 443rd. Several soldiers with the 639th did not qualify to deploy, due to personal hardships or medical conditions, so the Kalispell-based unit pulled soldiers from other Guard units to fill its needs.
The 639th mobilized at Fort Carson, Colo., in late fall of last year and arrived in Iraq in February.
"I was excited to go at first," English said. "I was still upset over September 11 and I couldn't wait to get over there."
English said he believes the United States is helping improve the lives of Iraqi citizens, one step at a time.
"We're really helping to clean things up over there," he said. "We're helping to put in plumbing and running water. I really think we're making some progress. We're hoping that we can help them clean their country up so they can take some pride in it."
English said he and fellow soldiers have been well-received by most Iraqi citizens.
"Most locals seem to like us; they give us gifts and stuff," he said.
But that's not always the case. On occasion, English said, situations can get ugly.
"Sometimes people flip us off, throw rocks, and yell at us to go home," he said. "We just have to shake that off. We know we're doing good over there."
English said he's witnessed several small attacks on fellow soldiers by enemy forces in Iraq, from mortar attacks to improvised explosive devices - IEDs - which pose a significant threat to convoys. The 639th frequently travels in convoys, delivering fuel to other bases. English said he's also seen tents torn to shreds as a result of mortar attacks.
"We've been lucky so far," he said. "Things have been fairly calm."
English's only real complaints about being stationed in Iraq are the intense heat - temperatures often hover around 120 degrees - and sandstorms, which he says feel like someone holding a blow dryer to your head, then throwing hot sand into your face.
The Tallil military base is home to thousands of soldiers from coalition forces around the world, including Korea, Japan, Italy and Great Britain.
"It's basically a big tent city," he said. "Some people have to walk more than a mile to the chow hall."
English said his living quarters are the envy of many other soldiers. He and his roommate, a soldier from Billings, reside in a trailer that once housed latrines. English said the pair cleaned up the trailer, put in a couple of bunks and an air conditioner and created their own little "home sweet home."
"I'm living like a king compared to everyone else," he said with a laugh. "We don't get wet when it rains and there's less mice."
English, the son of Havre Daily News employee Dixie English, said it's difficult to be so far away from family and friends, especially his 2-year-old daughter, Meriel, but letters, phone calls and care packages from home keep him going.
"Something you can touch from home, that's the best stuff," he said.
Friends at the Shanty Bar, the Corner Bar and Liquor Stop Plus have sent hats and shirts to his unit, helping "sponsor" the 639th's softball team.
The Ericksons at E1 Towing, English's longtime friends, have spent the past few months building him a car for the demolition derby.
"That's really kept me going for the last month or two," he said. "They knew I wouldn't have time to do it myself, so they did it for me. I couldn't wait to get home to see what they've built for me."
You can catch English in action tonight at 6 p.m. at the Hill County Fairgrounds.
English is leaving Sunday to rejoin his unit in Iraq. He said the 639th will spend at least another six months in Iraq before returning home to Montana. From that point on, he said, his company's fate is uncertain.
"We're not sure what'll happen," he said. "We could get redeployed, who knows. Everything's up in the air."