Originally Published April, 14, 2004

Camp Marez, as military bases go, is anything but primitive. It has satellite television, Internet cafes and a dining hall the size of an airport hangar with more than enough catered food to please the 500-plus palates of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.

It has an equally cavernous physical-fitness facility, complete with dozens of state-of-the-art weight machines, an aerobics room and a rubber-surfaced basketball court. A large movie theater will open in the coming weeks.

But Camp Marez also has, outside every building, clusters of grave C bunkers – 7-foot tunnels of reinforced concrete that fill up fast when the mortar shells start falling.

Four times on Easter Sunday, the C bunkers were crouching-room-only. A dozen or so 60-millimeter shells were launched on the hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. by unseen insurgents outside the sprawling camp’s perimeter. They caused one minor injury to a worker from Kellogg, Brown & Root, the company contracted by the Pentagon to provide quality-of-life amenities to U.S. troops in Iraq.

But Sunday’s mortar attacks, by all accounts the closest and most frequent since the 133rd arrived here almost a month ago, also provided a rude holiday reminder: Mosul, while not as perilous as Baghdad and Fallujah some 250 miles to the south, is still very much a war zone.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Platoon?’ That’s what I thought it would be like here – only in the desert,” said Spc. Angel Waters of Portland, who works in the 133rd’s medical unit. “I didn’t think we’d have flush toilets. I didn’t think we’d have cooked meals. I thought we’d be eating MREs (meals ready to eat).”

Instead, they have many, if not all, of the comforts of home. They have danger, however sporadic, at their doorsteps. And as they settle in for a year far from their hometowns all over Maine, they have much work to do.

The first advance group from the 133rd arrived here Feb. 22. By March 20, all of the battalion’s four companies had moved into their barracks – some are thick, concrete structures once occupied by Iraq’s Republican Guard, others are new, prefabricated “connex” cubicles that house two soldiers per unit.

Each has its advantages: The concrete barracks offer better protection from incoming shells; the Turkish-built portables sit above the ground on concrete blocks and are thus off-limits to scorpions and the occasional sand viper.

The 133rd replaced the 877th Engineer Battalion from Alabama – part of Operation Iraqi Freedom 2, the largest rotation of U.S. troops since World  War II. Their 12-month mission: help rebuild northern Iraq through a steady array of construction projects that range from “vertical” (buildings and other structures) to the “horizontal” (roads, bridges and related infrastructure).

 

“Right now, because there are a lot of transitional forces, we’re seeing a lot of smaller projects in a lot of camps and forward operation bases,” said Lt. Col. John Jansen, commander of the 133rd and newly appointed Task Force Engineer for Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. “But that will change.”

 

Jansen, whose duties keep him headquartered five miles away at Camp Freedom (one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces), said the 133rd’s role probably will expand outward in the coming months as projects directly benefiting the Iraqis – new schools, hospitals, municipal centers – work their way through the military pipeline.

In the meantime, the battalion’s three field companies work on improving their own camp and those of neighboring units. They also serve as what Jansen calls the region’s engineering “fire brigade,” responding quickly to security needs that arise in and around Mosul.

“We went into Mosul last night,” said Spc. Phil Daniels of Lyman, who operates heavy equipment for Bravo Company. “We had to install some Jersey barriers.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds. While Bravo Company installed the barriers to aid in crowd control during Mosul’s increasingly frequent daytime demonstrations, an armored unit from the Washington-based Stryker Brigade guarded their perimeter. With civil unrest on the rise all over Iraq, any trip to downtown Mosul – day or night – is an exercise in extreme caution.

 “You have to be on the alert for anything that’s going on, plus you have to pay attention to your equipment,” said Daniels, who by Tuesday morning was waiting his turn at morning sick call for a painful case of bursitis in his right knee. Wherever he goes next, he said, the last thing he wants is for a bum knee to slow him down.

“You’ve got to remember,” Daniels said, “it slows down two other guys if they have to carry you out.”

Already the days are long, hot and dusty – and conditions will only get worse. Afternoon temperatures that now peak in the high 80s and low 90s will soar as high as 120 come July and August.

But all of the barracks, to the soldiers’ pleasant surprise, are air-conditioned. And it doesn’t take long for them to become home.

Spc. Glen Bowers of Howland and his bunkmate, Spc. Dean Spencer of West Gardiner, have outfitted their portable with a small refrigerator, a microwave and a stereo that runs off their laptop computer. They’re also the proud owners of a new TV satellite dish – one of dozens that have sprouted like high-tech mushrooms all over Camp Marez.

 “The guy’s name is Saddam,” Bowers replied (with a straight face) when asked how one acquires a satellite dish. “He drives around here in a white pickup.”

For $200, Saddam will deliver a brand-new dish and a year’s worth of TV service. It comes with only four English-speaking stations, but there’s “a guy” in camp who can “tweak” the device so it brings in over 700 more channels – all in English.

Next on Bowers’ and Spencer’s shopping list: A 21-inch television available for just $200 from another Iraqi who works on the base.

Television is but one of the diversions. The 133rd provides free Internet access – and a handful of computers for those who didn’t bring one – inside a small building at its Headquarters Support Company. At any given hour, soldiers hunch over the terminals, reading daily e-mails from home or pounding out responses.

Telephone calls are also common. Akcell, a Turkish communications company, opened a 60-telephone calling center and a private high-speed Internet cafe in December. At $2 per hour to surf the Web and 28 cents per minute to phone home, business is booming.

“Many of them are so young, some are just 18,” mused Akcell representative Hakan Guven, as soldiers came and went after dinner Monday. “And from time to time when they talk to their families, I can see they’re happy or I can see they’re sad. Sometimes I invite them in (the office) for tea or coffee…. I start to feel like a big brother to them.”

Up a small hill from the calling center, the huge physical-fitness complex operated by Kellogg, Brown & Root draws yet another off-duty crowd – from the grimacing weightlifters to the sweat-soaked basketball league. Normally open 24 hours, the facility scaled back to a 7 p.m. closing time Monday.

After all, this is still a war zone. And while few days are as explosive as Easter Sunday, the tactical vests and Kevlar helmets – mandatory attire for anyone who ventured outside Monday – serve as a silent reminder that anything can happen at any time.

Some soldiers promptly e-mailed home all the details of Sunday’s attacks. Others never said a word – and voiced concerns that their loved ones would read about it for the first time in this column.

“Everyone handles it differently,” said Lt. Col. Jansen. “I tell my wife everything – if a mortar comes in, I immediately tell her. If she watches the news, she can figure it out anyway. I figure if I can do it in a relaxed manner, then it will be OK.”

Pfc. R.J. Brown of Gorham, on the other hand, would rather the folks back home not know about the occasional rush to the C bunkers.

“Just tell them it’s one big party over here,” Brown said with a broad smile.

It isn’t, of course. It’s just another generation of Maine soldiers, biding their time half a world away, trying to make the best of a difficult, sometimes dangerous deployment.

Before he bought his satellite dish, Glen Bowers, 27, gave two snapshots – one of his daughter, the other of his son – to an Iraqi camp worker who took them to an enterprising artist somewhere in Mosul. A few days later, for $25 each, the worker brought back remarkably accurate oil portraits of 8-year-old Courtney and 6-year-old Hunter.

The paintings now hang on the wall opposite Bowers’ bunk, right next to the calendar where he’s already numbered the days (319 and counting) before the 133rd packs up and heads for home. 

Don’t the paintings make him miss the kids even more?

 “No,” Bowers replied, admiring his artwork as darkness quietly fell Monday. “They’re the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning.” 

Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

 

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