Mideast Service Not Yet Over For Navy Reservist

RIM REVIEW

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Among the Rim country soldiers who most recently have served their fellow Americans is Candace Conte of Payson.

Conte spent nine months in the Mideast. The Payson Regional Medical Center lab employee was in charge of a team of 16 medical corpsman at Port Ash Shuaybah in Kuwait.

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Candace Conte had to borrow a hat for this picture, the one she normally wore was a big, floppy thing, better suited to 130-degree weather.

But in the service of freedom, Chief Petty Officer Conte was rarely free. "There was no where to go and with so many attacks on vehicles, they closed down all trips. And there were threats targeting women," Conte said.

The Payson Naval reservist was with the Naval Expeditionary Logistics Support Force Forward Group Alpha.

"We were the first large group to go. In fact we were the largest deployment of personnel and equipment since World War II," she said. They trained for a month in snow and rain in Williamsburg, Va.

"I didn't mind it. I like the snow and rain." Then they were sent to Kuwait, three days after New Year's 2004, where the average temperature was between 130 and 135 degrees, and the hottest day was 148 degrees.

She lived in two different tents and slept on a hard cot -- there were mattresses the soldier's could buy for their cots, but Conte opted not to make the purchase. The first tent housed 60 soldiers and elbow room was practically nonexistent, then she was moved to a roomier 10-man unit. The housing was air conditioned, "It was not much cooler inside than it was out," Conte said. "And the water was always hot."

Her work was in a small manufactured building, about 12 feet wide by 24 feet long. It started its service in the military as a shower trailer, then the builders and construction crews converted it to a medical station.

The water was stored in large bladders and high temperatures kept it hot, she explained. The military didn't use local water because the desalination process left it tasting salty, plus the base was surrounded by oil refineries, chemical plants and concrete factories, so that caused concern about the safety of the water.

"The air was awful," Conte said. All the industrial activity around the base combined with the dirt in the air made it brown and always dusty.

"It was really fine, like baby powder, you could never get rid of it," she said. Surprisingly though, not many of the soldiers developed respiratory problems.

"A few had asthma problems and had to be sent home, but not as many as you would think," Conte said.

They did not have to deal with many dust storms she said, however, the year before a storm had shut down the camp and it was so bad, the soldiers had to tie ropes to themselves to go to the latrine.

When not working, the soldiers had access to movies around the clock and a gym.

"They fed us really well," Conte said and admitted she is still working on losing the weight she put on while in Kuwait.

One experience Conte especially enjoyed was a combat life saver's swimming course. It was a joint Navy-Army event and she attended as part of the medical staff and as a certified lifeguard. The course had the military personnel in the water in uniform with their weapon and combat gear.

"I was surprised at how buoyant the uniforms and the boots are," Conte said.

One of the worst experiences -- the bugs.

"Oh my god! The bugs. I preferred it to be 135 degrees, because when it cooled off and the humidity came up the locust started swarming. You couldn't use lights because they were drawn to them."

She said the soldiers had to scrounge for a lot of stuff, so the care packages from home were really appreciated.

"All the Gatorade was great and so were the baby wipes," Conte said.

And every week she was in touch with her husband, Vince. They either talked on the phone or communicated over the Internet.

As a member of the reserves, Conte expects she will be returning to the Mideast in 2006.

"I hope we will be moving stuff back home because it's coming to an end," she said.

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