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Expecting to be Billetted in Tents, 100 Members of the Maryland National
 Guard Accommodated at the Loews Ventana Canyon
 Resort for 60 day Tour of Duty

By Josh Brodesky, The Arizona Daily Star, TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Aug. 11, 2006--When 2nd Lt. Brian Zdunowski shipped out for border duty this summer for Operation Jump Start, luxury was far from his mind.

Zdunowski, 34, was eager to see the Arizona-Mexico border.

So when he and the other 100 or so members of the Maryland National Guard arrived Aug. 1 at Loews Ventana Canyon resort, which is regularly ranked one of the nation's top resorts, he was surprised.

"We were told we would be here two to three days, tops," he said.

Nearly two weeks later, Zdunowski, who is second in command, said the soldiers are booked through Sept. 26 when their 60-day tour ends.

Luxury living in the Foothills isn't exactly the first image that comes to mind when you think of border duty. However, the soldiers are staying at the resort for a government rate of $76 a night, which equals their per diem and is less than the advertised summer special of $129.

They had no say in the booking of their rooms, which for the most part they share. The rooms were arranged via the Arizona National Guard and meet safety, cost and location requirements, officials said.

Moreover, hotel officials say they are happy to help the soldiers, and noted that during the summer season the rooms would have been empty.

"We're giving them a very comfortable bed," said Michael Dominguez, director of marketing for the resort.

The Maryland guardsmen are working in the area of Sells, about two hours southwest of Tucson. There, they have been assisting the U.S. Border Patrol with surveillance.

"We're pretty much the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol," Zdunowski said, adding that he's seen groups of 12, 16 and 26 illegal entrants. "To see that many people, it kind of blows you away."

To get to the desert south of Sells, the soldiers leave Ventana Canyon about 6 a.m. They first travel by three vans to the Valencia Armory on the city's South Side where they gear up for their mission -- they carry M-16s in the field. From there they head to the desert, where they will spend about a day before heading back to Tucson's Foothills.

Their schedule is roughly 36 hours on duty, followed by a day off.

"It's two different worlds," Zdunowski said.

Just how rooms are booked for Operation Jump Start soldiers is unclear. Maj. Paul Aguirre, of the Arizona National Guard, said there is a "logistics task force" dedicated to finding places to stay for soldiers with Operation Jump Start, which has placed about 6,100 troops in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

A unit heading to Arizona will contact the task force, which will then go about finding lodging. For example, some soldiers are staying at the Americana Motor Hotel in downtown Nogales. Others are staying at a Marine Corps station in Yuma. The main requirements for commercial housing, he said, are safety, proximity to the mission site and a cost that meets the per diem.

One of the biggest challenges has been the short notice officials have had, he said. President Bush announced Operation Jump Start in mid-May, and Aguirre said about 2,400 guardsmen have been placed in Arizona.

"Typically, annual training is (planned) more than a year in advance," he said.

But with such short notice, officials have had a hard time finding beds on military installations, which are often filled. Asked if he thought Ventana Canyon was too upscale, he said he thought it was a reflection of good planning on the fly.

"If you can put them in a nice place like that, why not?" he said.

But even for the soldiers, it's still hard to reconcile the image of duty in the Arizona desert with a resort that features two golf courses, eight tennis courts and two swimming pools.

"My first impression was somebody made a mistake," said 1st Sgt. Darryl Webb.

Asked what has been the biggest surprise for him on his tour, he quickly looked around.

"Staying at this fine resort," he said, adding he thought the troops were going to be staying in tents or in an armory.

Such sentiment was reflected throughout much of the group.

Many of the soldiers, including Zdunowski, served in New Orleans and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Their living arrangements there were hardly so cushy.

"At the Convention Center you had (the smell of) dead bodies," recalled Pvt. Everett Harris, of his tour through New Orleans.

While no one is complaining about their quarters, living at Ventana Canyon is not without its challenges.

Harris and Sgt. Jim Anderson noted that once back from the border, the soldiers are basically stuck at the resort. Their per diems are also maxed out with the cost of their room, so food and drinks mostly come out of their own pockets, although they receive a discount.

To fill up their off days, Anderson said soldiers go hiking or swimming. The other day, he said he climbed to a nearby waterfall and went "sunning."

Wednesday evening, a number of soldiers chatted over drinks at one of the resort's bars as live jazz played.

Dominguez, the resort's marketing director, said it's unclear if Ventana Canyon will house more soldiers in the fall when the hotel's season resumes and rates will rise.

If there is space, he said, the resort would be happy to help.

For Zdunowski and other soldiers, the gesture has been well received.

"It was dumb luck they put us here," he said. "We absolutely love the hotel. It's beautiful."

--Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 434-4086 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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