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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Madness Helps Fuel Normalcy

March 31, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

AL QAIM, Iraq — At this bleak desert outpost in the no man's land alongside the Syrian border, Marines talk of terrorists, smugglers and deadly landmines that lurk unseen beneath the sand.

They also talk of Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Duke and Connecticut. And there is even mournful discussion of Stanford, Alabama Birmingham and Saint Joseph's.

Even in the most remote of U.S. military camps, the Final Four college basketball festival has the attention of troops sent to help this volatile nation inch toward an uncertain future.

Some are longtime fans, others say that following the tournament is a way to stay connected to an America that can seem as distant as another planet.

In the entryway of the Marine headquarters here -- once an office building for the Iraqi railroad under Saddam Hussein -- there is a wall-sized bracket schedule, providing matchups and scores.

Beneath it is one of George S. Patton's most famous -- some might say belligerent -- quotes: "God favors the brave, victory is to the audacious."

"Out here, you need something to focus on," said Cpl. Anthony Coppula, still downcast after Saint Joseph's loss to Oklahoma State. "It keeps your spirits up."

At other bases, there is much of the same fervor as Marines consider the daunting chore of bringing stability to the Sunni Triangle, where anti-U.S. feeling is strongest.

At Camp Blue Diamond near the city of Ramadi, Marines gathered around a television in the chow hall to listen to analysts on ESPN debate the matchups. Games bring large crowds. Incoming mortars are only an annoyance.

"Anybody but Duke, that elitist school," grumbled one officer when asked to state a preference.

Not all bases are lucky enough to have satellite television. At Camp Korean Village, surrounded on all sides by miles of sand, rocks, and shimmering mirages, news of the games arrives secondhand.

Navy medic Andre Kirkendoll is 0 for 2. Stanford, then Saint Joseph's, disappointed him. He's yet to pick a favorite, but, like the officer at Blue Diamond, he knows one thing: "I'm anti-Duke."

Lt. Jason Johnston, with his favorite, Arizona State, not in the tournament, chose Texas. "I was just looking for an underdog," he said. "But underdogs rarely win."

Al Qaim -- where Marines from the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division are assigned to block terrorists and weapons from funneling into Iraq from Syria -- has no television.

Games are followed by the Internet, an iffy process because there are limited connections and not everyone -- hard to believe -- is a basketball fan.

"Once we hear a score, news whips around pretty quickly," one Marine said.

There are rules discouraging pools and betting -- the same kind of rules that exist in most government and corporate offices back in the U.S. Does friendly wagering still exist?

Don't ask, don't tell.

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