JOINT BASE BALAD, IRAQ, March 2, 2009 - While Birkie skiers were just going to sleep on Friday, February 20, a very different Birkebeiner started more than 5,000 miles away. Chaplain Kenath Harris and Sergeant John Kurtz, Minnesota Army National Guardsman, skied their event on roller skis on a stretch of pavement at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
Cpt. Kenath Harris and Sgt. John Kurtz participate in the Wisconsin based Birkebeiner cross-country ski race on the Joint Base Balad, Iraq flight line on Feb. 21. (Photo by Spc. Jodi Krause)
Chaplain Harris, a veteran of four Birkebeiners and one Kortelopet and former Williams College skier from St. Paul, Minnesota and Sgt. Kurtz, a former competitor in international and national biathlon events and skier of three Kortelopets from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, serve together as members of the 834th Aviation Support Battalion providing resources for helicopter operations.
“I decided to do the Birkie in Iraq after seeing the 2007 Iraqi Birkie display at the 2008 Birkie Expo,” said Chaplain Harris. “I met Kurtz on deployment learned he was also a member of the Army National Guard biathlon program and recruited him as a skiing partner.”
In 2007, Major Paul Peterson, a top-100 Birkie veteran and Cottage Grove, Minn. science teacher, and Staff Sgt. Bill Snellman, a former Jr. National Biathlon Team Member and chemical engineer at Cargill, who served together as members of the 134th Brigade Support Battalion at Tallil Air Base outside An Nasiriyah, Iraq, completed the first Birkie in Iraq.
Harris and Kurtz could not pass up the opportunity to follow the example of Peterson and Snellman and complete the Birkie in Iraq on rollerskis. They contacted the American Birkebeiner to work out all of the details.
Zuelsdorff gave them the green light, sent two Birkie bibs to the Guardsmen, and will award completion medals and pins when Harris and Kurtz return from their tour of duty. While no Birkebeiner credit will be given to the service men, the two were thrilled to get the go-ahead for their Birkie in Iraq. They worked out the logistics to have rollerskis, boots, and poles sent to the Middle East.
“We support our troops, and this was an easy way to show that support,” Zuelsdorff said.
The second Birkie in Iraq began on a flight line where the helicopters are repaired. The conditions were dusty and windy and the high temperature reached 72 degrees.
“The concrete course, although flat, felt as if it mirrored the American Birkebeiner’s trail with uphill and downhill portions as we skied either into the 30 mile per hour dust-carrying winds or were pushed by them,” said Harris.
Kenath and John said they are proud to represent both the United States Army and the American Birkebeiner.
John has volunteered to continue to serve in combat for another year and can perhaps complete another Birkie in Iraq in 2010.
Kenath expects to return home by June after 12 months away from Minnesota. “I want to thank the American Birkebeiner for its support and I look forward to racing in the Birkie next year with my sister Arwynn as my mother Sally skis her 28th and my father Paul skis his 29th Birkie,” Kenath said.
In Wisconsin, 7,455 skiers participated in 50K Birkie Skate sponsored by Becker Law, 54K Subaru Birkie Classic, 23K Kortelopet sponsored by Premier Physical Medicine and Wellness Clinic and Johnson Bank Prince Haakon 8K.
Story and more photos in 834th Aviation Support Battalion Soldiers Ski at Joint Base Balad