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`Grunts' in northern Iraq love and hate gritty duty, extreme conditions

BASHUR, Northern Iraq—They get up at first light. "Stand to," the sergeants say, shaking the feet of the unstirring.

Mornings here have been bitterly cold, so they keep on their snivel gear (that's what they call hats and fleece tops) as they wait for Habib (that's what they call the sun) to get a little higher in the sky and start beaming warmth.

Before they eat or brush their teeth, they check and clean their weapons.

None of them get uninterrupted sleep, because they run guard shifts—two hours on, four hours off. They have to do that, because they are providing security for hundreds of other soldiers—mainly rear-echelon types they call pogues (pronounced Pogz), for "People Other than Grunts—who sack out on cots in thick tents a half mile away near headquarters.

These guys don't have cots. They are an infantry platoon.

They bed down on thin inflatable pads under cursory shelters made from ponchos stretched over stakes. Instead of sleeping bags, they use thin poncho liners and waterproof covers. When the cold and shivering becomes unbearable, they snuggle up together, unashamedly.

This particular collection of 40 paratroopers is known as 2nd Platoon—one of three in Able Company, which is one of three rifle companies in the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry.

Men like them were once the bedrock of the Army, though in this war they have been eclipsed by tanks and planes and fancy bombs.

Their gear and food and weapons are better, but they live the way foot soldiers have lived for thousands of years. They perform difficult, monotonous tasks and usually aren't told why. They wallow in dirt and have no place to wash. They go to the bathroom in a trench that they dig themselves and cover over when they leave.

This reporter has spent the last week living with them at their checkpoints around what the army calls Bashur air base.

They volunteered for this, and take some measure of satisfaction in their hardships.

"It's a strange paradox," said Sgt. Chris Charo, 24, of Saratoga, N.Y., "because as much as we hate living like this, it's a point of pride."

They are part of the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, a force of about 2,000 men who, other than some special operators, are the only U.S. troops in this part of Iraq. The brigade's mission has been to secure the airfield and to bring in more firepower for future operations.

Second platoon's members are a slice of male America (women aren't allowed in these front line combat units). They hail from the East Coast, the West Coast and points between. They are black, white, Hispanic and Asian. They range in age from 19 to 37.

About a quarter are married, and some have young children.

In the field, living 24 hours a day with men they have known and worked with for two years, their sentences are laced with profanity. Their jokes are dark and unprintable.

But most are mature, thoughtful, well-informed men. The eldest, Troy Ezernack, 37, of Shreveport, La., was once a pastor in Lancaster, Pa.

Most say they joined the Army to serve their country, but now their biggest concern is one another.

"I've got 39 families just praying right now that I bring their sons back home," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Gueringer, 30, of Los Angeles, the platoon sergeant who runs things along with Lt. Larry Lee, 33, of San Francisco.

At the airfield, some soldiers have Internet access, crude bathrooms and showers. The men of 2nd Platoon clean themselves with wet-naps and hand sanitizers. One day, as a treat, they got to wash their feet and socks in a creek.

To the grunts, though, their deployment is a relative picnic, because it hasn't rained. When they last did field training in Germany, they spent 15 days living under cold drizzle in near-freezing temperatures.

Here, the challenge is the whipsawing temperatures.

Habib is their Middle Eastern variant on the usual Army name for the sun—Bob, for Big Orange Blob. Habib is a friend in the early hours, but he becomes fierce and unforgiving in the afternoons, especially to the men in the open. At night, the temperatures in this high, hilly landscape plunge into the low 40s.

The paratroopers hate sitting as glorified security guards, fingering their machine guns and M-4 rifles. They are elite soldiers, better trained than the average grunt. The problem is, once they jump out of the airplane they are just another lightly armed group of ground-pounders in a war being fought by men in armored vehicles and jets.

Second platoon is feeling especially left out at the moment, but not only because of the battles raging to their south. Other elements of the 173rd moved out Wednesday to the town of Irbil, 40 miles southwest. Those troops are supposed to mount patrols and seek to engage Iraqis. Second platoon has been told they may also pursue a similar mission elsewhere, but as they listen to news of fighting around Baghdad on short-wave radios, they wonder whether they will ever see combat.

They are torn about that, though. They spend their days training for war, and each wants to test his mettle. But the longer they stay out of the fight, the longer they stay alive and whole.

"Part of me wants to get into it," said Staff Sgt. Tim Hogan, 28, a squad leader from Eagle Point, Ore. "Because you don't come all the way out here to sit in the sun. But on the other hand, the longer I can avoid getting my guys shot at, the happier I am."

Hogan has a tattoo on each arm—one the cartoon Tasmanian Devil with the name of his daughter, Brianna, and the other a Winnie the Pooh with the name of his daughter, Sydney.

The grunts have seen no Iraqis, but have seen plenty of Kurds, whom they call "Hadjis," after the turban-wearing character in the old "Johnny Quest" cartoon series. It's not meant as a slur.

The paratroopers have gratefully eaten the warm bread and rice that Kurdish soldiers and civilians have often dropped off for them.

The men eat dinner just before sundown. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—in sealed pouches. They come with a water-activated heater to warm the main course and a sweet desert. There are more than 30 variations and most are not half bad, but they all get monotonous as days go by.

When Habib disappears and darkness falls, most of those not on sentry duty go to sleep, because they are prohibited from using white light out in the field. Some turn on their red-lens field flashlights and write in their journals.

"We've got to push ourselves every single day to live so we can see our loved ones back home," Staff Sgt. Jay Pasion, a native of Guam, wrote in his recently. "I think about my wife, Silvia, and my 1-year-old baby girl, Jasmine, every day. But I first have to take care of my soldiers and bring them back safe and alive. My will to survive makes me stronger. I have to survive so I can go home and see their faces again."

Then they put back on their snivel gear and try to stay warm as wind whips through their position and the temperature falls.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+PLATOON