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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – So, what is it like living here?

If you want to go off base, you’ll need permission from someone who is overworked, a convoy for cover and body armor. For a notion of body armor, cut holes in a big trash bag for your neck and arms, put it on over long underwear and hang two 10-pound sacks of flour over each shoulder.

For the background noise, find and park an idling bulldozer in your front yard. Do all this with 17 of your best friends, and two or three people who bug the heck out of you. Share toilets and showers with them.

Make sure the facilities are at least 20 or 30 yards away, sized for munchkins and right next to an aromatic above-ground sewage holding tank.

You’ll need lots and lots of fine dust – enough to cover every surface inside your house, especially your music equipment, so get with Dave Carr and have him tear out an old plaster ceiling. Bob Macy can bring over enough gravel to cover everything six or eight inches deep so when you go out to get the mail, you walk like a duck.

As for the heat, turn on a pair of hair dryers and aim one at each ear. Get your warmest winter coat out of the closet and put it on over the body armor. Stand there for a couple of hours.

You won’t have to wear the bullet-proof vest on the 10-minute walk to the mess hall, but you will be expected to carry a gun. Share an 8-foot by 20-foot room with a guy who snores. Work the night shift for two days, then the day shift for a day, then the night shift.

A lot of the people here are doing this, and getting shot at, with nagging doubts about their families.

Kids are being born, breaking their arms, screwing up their algebra tests and wrecking cars without their fathers. They are graduating from high school, getting engaged and finding new jobs with one parent on the far side of the world. A few of the wives back home have sent their husbands off to war, and their youngest child off to college at the same time. Folks are here for a year, time enough for spouses to move on.

Here’s an e-mail I got yesterday from the wife of a young Indiana soldier I had photographed while he stood guard over a bomb disposal crew as it dealt with two 122 mm artillery shells rigged to blow up a passing American or two, or 30.

“I know that you are probably busy but I was wondering if there was any way possible you could send me a picture of my husband. He is with 113th Company C. We are going to be having a baby here in a few weeks and I would like to have a picture of him to take with me to the hospital. I haven’t seen any pictures of him since he has been over there and I would really appreciate it. It would mean the world to me and I would be ever so grateful for you doing this! Once again, Thank you.”

Little wonder the chaplain sometimes looks like he has been up all night.

Small arms fire sometimes crackles in the distance after dark. It doesn’t seem to bother these people much. I'm happy to report that the incoming mortar fire that pestered this place for months before I arrived has stopped.

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.

To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published June 3, 2005