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Comforts Of Home Amid Perils Of Iraq

U.S. soldiers confront chaos daily, then take refuge

March 27, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The war in Iraq is the first American conflict in which a GI on patrol can risk evisceration from artillery shells rigged to a cellphone, then return to base in time for ESPN's "SportsCenter," a T-bone steak, a mocha cappuccino, a gym workout, an Internet surf session, a hot shower and a cold, if nonalcoholic, beer.

In Iraq, there is the "fob" -- the forward operating base -- and there is life outside the fob. A soldier's existence in Iraq is defined by the fob, and by the concertina wire that marks its boundaries.

The war beyond the wire is so draining that the more than 100 fobs in Iraq are fortified refuges for the nearly 150,000 U.S. troops here. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, a 3rd Infantry Division commander based at the Baghdad airport's FOB Liberty, calls them "little oases in the middle of a dangerous and confusing world."

This is a war with no front but plenty of rear. Many soldiers spend a year in Iraq without ever leaving their bases. Others may never even meet an Iraqi. A soldier may patrol for months without ever seeing the enemy, yet risk death or disfigurement at any moment.

Almost each day in Iraq will end with an American on patrol losing an arm, a leg, an eye or a life to an earth-shattering detonation of high explosives. That these bombs are embedded in the most prosaic emblems of Iraqi life -- a car, a donkey cart, a trash pile, a pothole -- only intensifies the dread that attends every journey outside the wire.

Inside each fob lies an ersatz America, a manifestation of the urge to create a version of home in a hostile land.

The three vast airport fobs, home to the 3rd Infantry Division and 18th Airborne Corps, have the ambience of a trailer park set inside a maximum-security prison. Soldiers live in white metal mobile homes piled high with sandbags. They have beds, televisions, air conditioning, charcoal grills and volleyball courts.

At the flat, dusty airport fob called Liberty, there is a Burger King, a Subway sandwich shop and an Internet cafe. TV sets in mess halls and gyms blare basketball games or Fox News, the unofficial news channel of the U.S. military. A sprawling PX sells CDs, DVDs, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" caps and T-shirts that read: "Who's Your Baghdaddy?"

Every need -- food, laundry, maid service -- is attended to by a legion of workers from non-Muslim nations, mostly Indians, Filipinos and Nepalese.

They are a chipper, efficient lot who, combined with soldiers from places like El Salvador and Estonia, give the fob the breezy, cosmopolitan feel of a misplaced Olympic Village.

The mess halls are like shopping mall food courts, with salad bars, taco bars and ice cream stations. Cheeseburgers and cheese steaks hiss and pop on short-order grills. The aisles are clogged with M-16 automatic rifles and flak vests set aside by soldiers. Fit young men and women in combat fatigues mingle with civilian contractors, some of them beer-bellied, bearded and well into middle age.

Administrative specialists who never leave the fob are known, with some condescension, as fobbits. Like every soldier here, a fobbit could be killed at any time by a random rocket or mortar round. But on most days the greatest danger to a fobbit's health are the three heaping, deep-fried daily portions of mess hall food.

From the relative safety of fobs, U.S. commanders deliver calm, reassuring accounts of progress -- insurgents captured, weapons seized and Iraqi soldiers trained to one day fight the insurgency on their own. Some commanders plot strategy in marble-walled offices inside Saddam Hussein's former palaces, beneath massive chandeliers and tiled ceilings.

For staff officers billeted at fobs, the war sometimes has all the glamour and drama of a doctoral dissertation. Maj. Tom Perison, the future operations chief for the 42nd Infantry Division at FOB Danger in Tikrit, likes to joke that he is "at the pit of the spear" -- a play on the "tip of the spear" analogy used by combat commanders. Perison spends much of his time in one of Hussein's palaces analyzing local political currents and worrying about the state of the regional oil industry.

The measure of military success in Iraq lies not in cities taken or enemies killed.

"The key is learning who has control of the local population -- the imams, tribal sheiks, local council leaders -- and turning that to your advantage," said Maj. Doug Winton, a planner with the 3rd Infantry Division.

This is a war in which soldiers must also be politicians, diplomats, engineers and city planners, as familiar with municipal budgets and sewage capacity as M-16s and Abrams tanks.

Their daily schedules are consumed by initials.

The typical BUB -- daily battle update brief -- lists attacks by roadside bombs and raids on insurgent hide-outs. But the briefings devote far more time to trash pickups, mosque sermons, road paving, school attendance and repairs to electrical substations. Many officers spend more time with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations than in armored Humvees.

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