Art, wine toast unit's service

Walla Walla native Ana Martinez-Townsend's idea for a tribute bears fruit as local businesses team for a special-edition bottling.

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Closeup of a special batch of wine brewed for a division of troops currently stationed in Mosul, Iraq. 2/28/10.

After nearly 900 combat hours over Mosul skies, the little things on the ground became the elements of Ana Martinez-Townsend's most enduring daydreams.

On the most relaxing of evenings -- if such a thing exists in the intense surroundings of a war zone -- the Walla Walla native, deployed to Iraq a year ago, transported herself to the idyllic setting of her front porch of her southern home.

"Every time I had an evening off and I sat outside my (combat housing unit), I would imagine being home with my family -- sitting on the porch, sipping on wine and just enjoying the evening," she said via e-mail.

But it wasn't long before the vision of a glass of wine evolved into a much greater plan that would give Ana and the rest of her unit not only a taste of Walla Walla's signature juice, but a keepsake souvenir for the B Troop 1-230th Aviation Cavalry Squadron.

Armed with her computer, Ana, an officer and helicopter pilot, kept in touch with her family and friends through Facebook during her yearlong stint in Iraq. Her interaction included online exchanges with childhood friend and fellow Walla Walla High School class of 1993 graduate Chris Kontos, co-owner of Kontos Cellars.

Through this interaction, the idea came: "She wondered if there was any way to make a personalized label or anything (her unit) could have with some dates on it," Kontos explained.

The idea grew from regular paper labels into etched bottles. With help from Etchings Walla Walla, the family-owned business of Thad and Gary Sirmon, the red and white blends created by Kontos winemaker and Chris' brother, Cameron Kontos, were bottled into the specially etched pieces that contain the name of Ana's unit, dates of deployment and the unit logo.

"It's a pretty small effort, but it's been a way to tie myself with what's going on over there," Kontos said of his connection to Ana. "It's definitely been something that brought the experience a lot closer to home."

For Ana, who returned to the U.S. last week minus two fellow pilots who crashed in Iraq just weeks before the trip home, the keepsake is a reminder of the work she's done.

Originally enlisted in 1996 as a helicopter mechanic, she became an officer in 2000 and graduated the Army Rotary Wing Aviation Course in August the next year, she explained in her e-mail.

A mother of three daughters, she moved to Fort Campbell, where her husband is an Apache Longbow pilot for the 101st Aviation Brigade. She then transferred to the Tennessee unit in 2008 to fly the Kiowa Warrior. The only woman in her troop, and known as "BlackJack 28," she was pilot in command in her aircraft for the majority of the missions, which were centralized over Mosul.

"It was our honor and responsibility to provide security and protection for our ground elements," she said.

Her unit broke a number of records and set the standard for OH-58D in a combat theatre, and her squadron was voted Aviation Unit of the Year by the Army Aviation Association of America.

As part of a welcome-home, Kontos Cellars had shipped the wine to Tennessee, where Ana was expected to distribute it to her peers.

"We are all very proud of the energy, time, effort and craftsmanship," she said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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