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Humvee platoon near Najaf providing security watches, waits

IN THE DESERT NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—Out in the sand dunes, where the sun cooks and soldiers patrol, the music comes blaring: "Take your shirt off. Twist it 'round your hand. Spin it like a helicopter."

It's a rap song by hip-hop artist Petey Pablo, and the bass is thumping. A boom box on the dashboard rattles.

Pfc. Marco Silva, 24, bobs his head and keeps watch through the scope of his missile system on his armored Humvee.

"Man, what I wouldn't give for a Domino's pizza. Pineapple and bacon," he said.

From outside, the voice of Staff Sgt. Sam Gregory joined in. "McDonald's No. 4, super-sized, with lemonade."

This Humvee platoon is rockin' out and dreaming of fast food while it provides security on the far outskirts of the 101st headquarters' camp near Najaf.

Cut off from the rest of the base and the other platoons of their company, the soldiers have created their own little world while waiting to be called into the real fighting.

They sleep, when they get the time, on hoods, trunks and Humvee seats. They wake to the sound of artillery rounds bursting in Najaf.

A shower is soap and a splash of water in an ammunition can. The toilet is made by digging a hole in the sand.

Early Wednesday morning, 2nd Lt. Tim Faulkner dropped by Gregory's Humvee. His fleece cap rolled up like a beret, Faulkner wore military-issue glasses that resembled goggles. The effect was one of an errant intellectual.

Drinking coffee cooked with truck fuel, the men gathered under a canvas tarp that had been stretched off the side of the truck and weighed down with sand rocks that crumble when you kick them.

Faulkner: "Dudes, Baghdad's mission complete."

Gregory: "So they're not going to stop until then?"

Faulkner: "No."

Gregory: "So it's going to be a while?"

Faulkner: "Yeah, we've got a while to go."

The men's conversation went on to include the fox they saw scampering across the desert; what medals may be issued for combat service in Iraq; the scourge of men who bring too few cigarettes and spend the rest of the time bumming off other soldiers; and, sandwiched in there somewhere, Faulkner's report the night before of 30 enemy vehicles headed their way.

The enemy never showed, but the worry kept the men glued to their guns, scanning the night for any hint of trouble.

"It's been wild; sometimes I get anxious, sometimes I get scared," said Silva, of Miami.

"Going through (the Kuwait-Iraq border) was scary, actually pointing the gun at somebody, locked and loaded."

Faulkner, though, is ready for the streets of Najaf, and other cities north.

"Tat-tat-tat, boom, guys throwing a grenade, boom, clearing a bunker, tat-tat-tat. It's a trip," said Faulkner, 35. The lieutenant spent 13 years as an enlisted soldier before going to Officers Candidate School. He's about to finish his degree in Middle Eastern studies, and has spent years with military intelligence assisting special forces teams as an Arabic linguist.

As pumped as he is for battle, Faulkner said, "It would be nice to interact with the culture on a nonmilitary basis. You know, interact normally."

The biggest scrape that Gregory's Humvee has faced so far was on the way to Iraq from Kuwait. The driver, Pfc. Stephen Stuck, made a U-turn and slammed into a water tanker truck. There were some bumps and bruises, but no one was injured.

Stuck, 22 from Las Vegas, had never driven a Humvee before he went to Kuwait about three weeks ago. It's a steep learning curve, he conceded. He now keeps a Bible under his seat.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.