When Alaska National Guard Sgt. Charles McCracken and the Alpha Co., 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry returned this winter from a year-long tour in Iraq, the first order of business was learning how to relax again.
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"It was kind of like driving 70 miles an hour and all of a sudden throwing it in reverse," said McCracken, part of the Alaska Army National Guard's first combat deployment since World War II. "We were going nonstop, hardly resting, usually getting one day off every 10 days provided nothing happened where you had to be called in.
"I got back to Juneau and I was antsy. I was like, 'Okay, there's not enough going on right now.'"
McCracken was reunited with his wife, Rebecca, his 10-year-old son and two daughters. It took him two to three weeks before he reacclimated himself to Juneau's pace.
Now he's back at his old job at Greens Creek Mine - waking up at 4 a.m., boarding the ferry at 5 and returning home by 6:30 p.m. Tonight, he also makes his first appearance in a boxing ring in almost two years.
McCracken is one of eight boxers who will fight for the Southeast Showdown lightweight championship at Marlintini's Lounge. Doors open at 8 p.m., and fighting begins around 9.
The field includes Anchorage power Glen Laufenburger, Juneau favorite Julio "The Haitian Sensation" Gregoire and Sitka darkhorse Richie Witson. There will be seven lightweight fights, with the champion needing to win three matches tonight.
The 5-foot-6, 160-pound McCracken is a late replacement for Johnny "The Cobra" Taunton. Taunton suffered a gash that needed stitches after being head-butted last week in the Alaska State Boxing Championships in Anchorage.
Gregoire has established himself as one of Juneau's best lightweight fighters but is coming off a February loss to Taunton. McCracken, a co-worker of Gregoire, actually talked The Haitian Sensation into fighting.
Witson may shock people tonight. He's trained with Matt "The Goat" Coppick and participated in the Alaska Fighting Championships in Anchorage, which is for mixed martial arts fighters.
McCracken fought Roughhouse in Juneau during the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 seasons.
In the 2004 Southeast Showdown, McCracken defeated Taunton in the first match before falling to Laufenburger in the second round.
"I knew I'd get back into boxing, but I didn't think I would fight until the next season," McCracken said. "I made a decision after watching the February fights and started training again."
"I do feel confident going in, because I have enough experience, but I'm sure they'll give me quite a run," he said. "These guys have been fighting the whole time, and I've got a little bit of ring rust. It's just been a while since I moved with someone else in reaction to the way that they're moving."
McCracken started boxing in the mid-1990s, when he was stationed with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. When his term ended, he re-enlisted to come to Alaska and was sent to Fort Wainwright with the 1st battalion, 17th infantry in 1997. He fought there for one full season, advancing to the season championships.
"The caliber of fighter is much better down here in the Southeast, at least from the time I fought back (in 2003 and 2004)," McCracken said. "Those are some of the toughest guys I've ever fought. The people down here in Southeast train for this stuff, where a lot of the time in Fairbanks there were just guys that wanted beer money or just wanted to throw punches."
McCracken's Fairbanks term ended in 2000 and he returned home to California for two years, until he decided to return to Alaska. In 2002 he visited a friend, who helped hook him up with a job at Greens Creek Mine. McCracken began fighting here in November 2002. His Roughhouse career was interrupted in the summer of 2004, when he learned his guard unit was being deployed to Iraq.
"We had our suspicions that it was coming, but nothing was concrete," McCracken said. "I was able to give my wife a bit of a warning and give my family a bit of a warning, and sure enough it happened."
McCracken and the Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry trained for three months in Texas and Louisiana before heading to Iraq. His main job was camp security - patrolling the Green Zone perimeter and searching vehicles.
"We never had any face-to-face confrontations," McCracken said. "We were shot at quite a few times, there were a couple explosions next to us. A roadside bomb would go off. It was nothing in comparison to the guys that went through Vietnam or the Gulf War or even Operation Iraqi Freedom, but we did have our share of moments."
McCracken almost got back into boxing during his time in Iraq. He was scheduled to fight in a camp match last October, but he broke his right hand doing construction on the same day.
McCracken's broken hand derailed his conditioning for his last four months in Iraq. He was as heavy as 185 pounds in February, but he's dropped 25 pounds in the last two months. Since his return, he hasn't watched much news.
"When we left, things were way better than they were when we first got there," McCracken said. "In one of the areas that we patrolled, the kids would stand against the wall when we drove by and just look at us funny. After we were there for six months, they were running out, they were cheering for us and happy to see us. I felt like we had done a 180 with the people that live over there."
"Occasionally I'll catch a glimpse of something, especially if they talk about the Baghdad area or if they mention an area where I was at," he said. "It's more or less the fact that I want to concentrate on what's going on here. Once we found out we were going, it was all 100 percent go, doing everything you can to focus on the mission. Coming back here, and taking two to three weeks to get used to the pace again, I just chose not to pay any attention until I got used to relaxing."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org