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Fresh out of boot camp with no time to forget its lessons

NAME: Alex Buhlman

RANK: Marine Pfc.

DUTY: Combat engineer

AGE: 19

HOMETOWN: Farmington Hills, Mich.

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SOUTHERN IRAQ—Pfc. Alex Buhlman was watching the History Channel when he saw a show on combat engineers.

"It showed what the combat engineers did in World War II," said Buhlman, 19, of Farmington Hills, Mich. "The engineers stopped an advancement by blowing up a bridge. I thought, Man, that looks cool."

It stuck in his head.

When he joined the Marine Reserves, he wanted to become a combat engineer.

"We do a lot of cool stuff, like build things and blow things up," he said.

Buhlman, fresh out of boot camp, is sitting on a sand berm in southern Iraq, protecting a supply base.

"A lot of guys say, `He's fresh, just out of boot camp, what does he know?' " Buhlman said. "But I just had all the training and I haven't had time to forget it. It took me a while to gain their trust. I think they got used to me and I got used to them."

Buhlman is with Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion.

"When I was little, I remember watching the first war, being really interested in it," Buhlman said. "For some reason, I remember eating Pizza Hut pizza, watching the Gulf War."

It's strange the things you remember 12 years later, when you are half a world away from childhood.

"There's a big difference," he said. "When you see it on television, you think it's tanks and planes, and the ground troops don't do much. You think it's all mechanized. But you don't think about bunker clearing."

Buhlman has done his share of bunker clearing, approaching a sand bunker with a shotgun to find out if the enemy occupies it.

"It's a scary moment, but to this point, none of the bunkers has been filled," he said.

"When we crossed the border into Iraq, I was thinking, I hope we'll be all right. I hope we don't see anything," Buhlman said. "But it was really exciting. Everybody was alert and awake, locked and loaded. I'm all about experiences. Life's about experiences. I'm not a real church guy, but I think life is more about learning than staying away from sin."

For Buhlman, the hardest part has been the sandstorms. "A few days ago, we were curled under a truck," he said. "I didn't even take out my sleeping bag because I didn't want it to get all sandy."

Buhlman was born in Shreveport, La., where he lived for a year; he grew up in Farmington Hills. His family moved to Bel Air, Md., where he went to high school. In June, the family moved back to Farmington Hills.

Buhlman's father, William, is a leading writer of metaphysical out-of-body experiences. His mother, Susan Buhlman, is a material manager at General Motors.

Buhlman signed up for the Marine Reserves midway through his senior year of high school. "I wanted the experience. I wanted something exciting; I joined at the right time, I guess," he said.

He drove to Maryland for boot camp on June 24. He graduated on Sept. 20 and then had a 10-day leave, so he went back to Michigan. After four weeks of combat training, he had seven weeks of combat-engineer school. He got out Dec. 14 and drove back to Michigan for a week.

He drove back to Maryland for his first drill weekend, where he learned that he had been activated. "I didn't get a chance to say good-bye to my family," he said.

So his family went to see him.

"My parents were pretty calm," he said. "My dad would let out a sigh, like, `oh, man.' He couldn't believe his son was going to war. I'm sure there were tears, but there was nothing frantic."

When he gets back, he plans to buy his dream car, a red 1970s Corvette Stingray with a T-top.

"I've been looking for about a year," he says. "That's the first thing that I'm going to get. I've been thinking about it since boot camp, and that seems like a lifetime ago."

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

ILLUSTRATIONS (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+BUHLMAN

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