Running Erbil: Owasso soldier logs miles and memories in Iraq
Story by MAJ Keith Grant on 08/14/2019
Minutes before the sun peaks over the Zagros mountains, the small group of runners gather up, discuss their workout plans, and set off for their morning run. It’s four hours before the start of the workday, but it won’t take long for temperatures to reach triple digits once the sun’s rays beat down on Erbil Air Base. Early starts are essential for runners who want to avoid being confined to the monotony of a treadmill.
“The camaraderie of the run is great,” said U.S. Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 3 Melissa Barnes, the motivator behind this group. “Even if we don’t talk, we’ll play music and guess the songs. We make it fun.”
The Owasso, Oklahoma, resident deployed to Erbil this spring to serve as the administration officer-in-charge for the base, located in the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. The morning runs have been her way to decompress from her duties managing lodging and reporting procedures for the 3,600 personnel serving here. All told, she tracks individuals from more than 50 distinct military and civilian organizations from 13 different countries that are here to support the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led multinational mission launched in 2014 to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Barnes is the go-to person for billeting issues for all Coalition soldiers and civilians on base, whose broad range of missions include medical support, aviation and training of the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan security forces. Among U.S. personnel, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are all represented on the sprawling Erbil complex. On any given day, Barnes will interact with members of all four U.S. military branches, along with numerous foreign service members from Coalition partners. Learning their rank structure and overcoming language barriers were a challenge, but a welcomed one.
Long before her workday starts behind a desk, though, the mother of three is among the early morning runners on the roads around the air base. Barnes launched the run group a few months into her deployment, in part to hold herself accountable to her fitness goals for the nine months she expects to be in country.
“[Being deployed] is a perfect time to get back in shape,” Barnes said. “But sometimes it takes having others hold you accountable. Having accountability with other people helps me stay on target.”
One of Barnes’ big targets for the deployment is the Army Ten Miler. As a civilian, Barnes serves as a Supervisory Staff Administrator for 1st Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Last year, she ran her first Army Ten Miler with several colleagues, many of whom have entered to race again. So as not to completely miss out on it this year, she’s coordinated for an official “Shadow Run” on Erbil Air Base to coincide with the main Washington, D.C. event in October. Word of the run quickly drew in excess of 100 sign-ups.
“When I saw the Shadow Run option on their website, I started researching it and thought Wow, we can do that here,'” Barnes said. The run will be one of only 13 sanctioned Shadow Runs.
The event has even drawn interest from Coalition partners on Erbil, some of whom have joined Barnes’ morning run group. Even without the Army Ten Miler to look ahead to, Barnes enjoys the camaraderie the morning runs have helped create. Yet even in the early morning, the summer heat which can top 100 degrees by 9 a.m. poses its challenges.
“It just sucks the life out of you,” Barnes said. “I carry water with me, and it doesn’t help.”
Barnes has few other complaints about her assignment, though. The northern Iraq region provides scenic views not often associated with a Middle East deployment. The mountains to the east still snowcapped when Barnes’ unit arrived and city skyline to the south contribute to one of the more picturesque settings among military installations in the region.
“I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it would be,” she said. “Until we showed up, I didn’t realize how close and how pretty the mountains would be. And they were green! And then at night you see all of the city lights.”
The deployment has been a unique experience for the former military brat. Despite a father, stepfather and mother who all served in the military, Barnes initially had no interest in following in their footsteps.
“I hated it as a teenager,” she said. “We moved every three years. [But] when I got to college, I missed it. I signed up for the reserves and didn’t even tell my parents.”
Despite the years of military moves, Barnes’ roots are now firmly in Oklahoma, with her husband, Michael, and children back in Owasso and her parents, Jessie and Roy Clarkson, just north in Bartlesville. Barnes owns an Associate degree from Tulsa Community College and is working towards her B.A. at Oklahoma State.
In the meantime, next March will mark 30 years of military service for Barnes. Her 29th year has proven to be one of the more memorable ones.
“This is a nice assignment,” she said of her time on Erbil Air Base. “It’s a great assignment to be at. And I really do enjoy going to the [Coalition] camps and learning about them. I’m a traveled person, as a military brat. But to work alongside Coalition partners is so different. I’ve learned a lot from them.”