East Tennessee troops leave an unmistakable icon in the desert
by David Massengill
Imagine this: You’re an Army Reserve soldier from Knoxville sent to Mosul, Iraq in support of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Driving up a dusty hill on your way to the former house of “Chemical Ali,” now converted to the Headquarters of 101st Division Artillery, you’re daydreaming about home. You’re slightly depressed, thinking of what you’ll be missing this fall; Boombsday, the Smoky Mountain seasonal change, your girlfriend, family, and the whole atmosphere that comes along with UT football, all enough to put one in a foul mood.
As the hot 120-degree Iraqi sun beats down, made worse by the heat-retaining flak vest and helmet you wear, you look up to the sky and ask if it will ever get any better. Then you crest the top of the hill and see it. On the top of this hill, shining like a big orange beacon of hillbilly light, you see an Iraqi water tower painted “UT Orange” complete with the “Power T” on top facing west…towards home. Your first reaction would force your jaw to drop in astonishment. Second, check to see if you’re not going crazy, and then finally smile and shake your head in amusement.
The story, or small legend rather, as it goes is this. An officer in the 101st Airborne Division, where most soldiers live in Clarkesville, TN, was given the task of painting the water tower. Buying paint he specifically ordered from the U.S., he set about putting the Iraqis working for him to good use. (His superiors never said what COLOR to use!) The next morning, Iraq had its first experience of what we call “Big Orange Fever.”
I really don’t know who did it, or why, but I think the other soldiers here prefer it that way, letting it speak for all of us as we let those back home know we’re still here. Maybe it was this officer’s wish to go back home so bad that drove him to paint the tower. Maybe it was his disgruntlement of missing this year’s season, and in turn performing his own little rebellion against those who are the cause of his displacement. Maybe he was just sharing with the Iraqi people the time-honored southern tradition of painting over public structures to show the world what they thought. However it happened, or why, is still up for speculation. All I know is that there’s a water tower up there with one letter facing west, hoping to reach out over 8,000 miles to say “Go Vols.”