MAYBE I WATCHED too many movies growing up, but I've always assumed that when America goes to war, it brings along the booze.
Don Rickles stockpiling cognac in "Kelly's Heroes" . . . Hawkeye and Trapper John getting trashed at Rosie's in "M*A*S*H". . . Robert Duvall's troops feasting on T-bones and beer after the napalm of "Apocalypse Now."
But thanks to General Order No. 1, they'll never make a movie about drinking beer in Iraq.
That's the special military rule, instituted at the start of the war, that bans alcohol (and gambling and porn!) for personnel deployed to the Middle East.
As Pennsylvania National Guard public information office Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver explained, "The cultural rules of no alcohol in the majority of those countries required us to follow the host nations' sensitivities and issues."
Which is why JoAnna Gresham, the marketing chief at the Pennsylvania Agriculture Department, thought it would be a great idea to toast the 4,000 members of the Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade with Pennsylvania beer before they shipped out to Iraq next month.
In an effort that speaks volumes about both the state's enthusiasm for beer and local support of our troops, Gresham rounded up more than 7,000 bottles of ale and lager from a half-dozen breweries. It would be served at a family-day picnic before the guardsmen and women shipped out from Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County and from Fort Dix, N.J.
Stoudt's, Yuengling, Troegs, Victory, Otto's, Appalachian - they all donated pallets to the cause.
"It would be their last taste of Pennsylvania for the next nine months," Gresham said.
"It's just one small way that we can help out the troops and let them sample a little bit of home," added Stoudt's head brewer Brett Kintzer.
Great idea, until Gresham learned that, for the Stryker Brigade, General Order No. 1 has meant no alcohol since they began training in September.
No beer during months of preparation in Louisiana and Mississippi.
No suds upon their return home this week for the holidays.
No last taste of delicious Pennsylvania beer before heading off to combat.
Now, our fighting men and women are trained for extreme hardship: unbearable heat, grueling hours of patrol and the violence of combat. But I think most of us would agree that a beer ban before shipping out seems beyond the call of duty - especially considering these are volunteers with regular nonmilitary jobs.
Getting a good buzz on before facing the hell of war not only seems like a god-given right, but a necessity.
In the spirit of the holidays, I'll jump straight to the good news here:
After weeks of talks that reached all the way to the Pennsylvania Guard's commander, Maj. General Jessica L. Wright, the brigade was granted a one-day exception to the alcohol ban. On family day, Jan. 10, each member of the brigade will get a ration of two bottles.
The beer will wash down a tasty variety of other Pennsylvania treats: Herr's potato chips, Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets, Christine's Chocolate Creations, Musselman's applesauce, Whoopie pies from Miller's Amish Bakery and more, all of it donated.
We all know that one afternoon of fun and beer can't make up for the sacrifice these troops face. This war was a mistake and most likely an act of deceit by our nation's leaders. These men and women should not have to leave their families.
But on this holiday week, a couple bottles of Pennsylvania beer is a tiny bit of good news.
"I'm excited the brewers came through in a big way," Gresham said after she got the word on the temporary exception to General Rule No. 1. "They were all very enthusiastic and generous. I'm thrilled on a personal level."
The holiday spirit continues this weekend with tomorrow's Philly Christmas Beer Festival. We'll be pouring more than 50 varieties of holiday ales and lagers at the Penn Museum (33rd and Spruce streets, University City), including some rarities and vintage bottles.
Tickets are $75, which includes a full buffet meal. There's also a special VIP tasting, including a sit-down luncheon hosted by Joe Sixpack and a complimentary copy of my book, "Christmas Beer," with tickets at $125.
See www.phillybeerfests.com for more details and tickets. *