Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=80309
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 11:54:27 PM CST
WASHINGTON --- Maj. Wellington Samouce returned to Iraq to face the fury of some disgruntled members of the 101st Airborne Division who became frustrated by what had been amassing in Tikrit since he went on leave.
“I went home for two weeks and I came back and the mailroom was full,” said Samouce of the boxes piling up at Camp Speicher in northern Iraq. “It just got ridiculous because there were so many models that people were telling me to get my stuff out of there.”
While reading a hobby magazine, Samouce, who goes by the nickname “Duke,” thought of starting a model-building club for those wanting to lighten the stress of the combat zone. The club has proven a positive outlet for the 40 members in Tikrit who crave a slice of home and a sliver of childhood.
“People come in, take off their jackets, prop their weapon up against the desk and go to work,” Samouce said.
The efforts of these avid builders were noticed in 2004 by the International Plastic Modelers’ Society, which worked to gather donations within the United States for shipment to Iraq through the program Hobbies for Heroes.
John Noack, the former first vice president of International Plastic Modelers’ Society, jumpstarted the effort after receiving requests from soldiers including Samouce, asking for supplies. Noack contacted hobby shops and model-building chapters across America for donations and took a “shotgun approach” to sending them overseas.
“It was kind of hodgepodge in the beginning,” Noack said. “You never knew if they’d get 21 helicopter kits or 14 bottles of paint.”
What started as a grassroots program turned into an efficient structure of distribution with Baghdad as its hub.
“Now, I got guys building who are in a bunker or foxhole and they still manage to put a helicopter kit together and send me a picture of it next to a shrub,” Noack said.
Staff Sgt. Steve Demott, who’s headed the Baghdad Hobby Club since January, wasn’t prepared for the intense responsibility of being the central distributor of supplies and kits throughout Iraq.
“I found out that it’s a second job just trying to keep up with the donations,” said Demott in an e-mail.
Carolyn Aldwin, a professor at Oregon State University who specializes in mental health and coping with stress, is not surprised by soldiers adopting hobbies overseas, especially ones that relate to their identity as a member of the military.
“It makes perfect sense to me that they would build replicas of war machines,” she said, adding that model building and camaraderie may help them survive both physically and psychologically.
Muscle cars are the most popular kits among the troops, said Samouce, yet some soldiers enjoy building the helicopters or tanks they control in combat. To Aldwin, this makes perfect sense.
“The more you understand about the machinery you have to operate the more likely you are to live,” she said.
Margaret Tippy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Command, said the army medical community has not looked into hobbies, like model building, as a way to manage mental strain under fire.
“We cannot link hobbies to reduced stress and strain for Soldiers,” she said in an e-mail. “We have not measured nor are we currently conducting any studies to verify…hobbies as a benefit for Soldiers who are living under severe stress.”
For Samouce, the plastic model kits kept him mentally sharp while deployed.
“Without this hobby, I would have gone nuts,” he said.
Noack, the co-founder of Hobbies for Heroes, jovially said when soldiers in Iraq get competitive about their models it’s probably much more intense than at home.
“I can imagine if they have a model contest over there the guy with the biggest gun wins,” Noack said.