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Different races, different backgrounds, but buddies at heart

SOUTH OF KARBALA, Iraq—Vince Austin and Timmy Melia. One's black. One's white. One's a wisecracking New Yorker. The other's a poker-faced Midwesterner. Both are buddies with Mean Streets backgrounds looking to survive war with a dash of outlaw instincts, dark humor, and a playful friendship.

Their banter is uninhibited, stripped of correctness:

"Don't get me started on reparations—you'll get me all riled up," says Austin, preparing the pair's Humvee for the 100-kilometer ride northwest toward Karbala.

"Don't give me that s---," says Melia, 27, born of French-Irish ancestry in Omaha, Neb. "I'm part Irish. Irish people were also slaves. Does that mean I should get partial reparations?"

"Listen Frenchy," says Austin, whose Brooklyn "thug-life" history can be read among the many tattoos on his dark torso. "I'm the schtick man of this routine. I'm Dean and you're Jerry."

"How can that be? I thought you were from `da hood,' " says Melia, his fingers quote-marking for emphasis.

"See how he puts the black man down?" says Austin.

The next minute the two are singing rapper 50 Cent's "21 Questions."

Like the rest of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Austin and Melia know the messiest part of the war is coming. The wait is excruciating, but they feel prepared.

"I got the ghetto in me and I'll bring it when I have to," Austin says.

Both are Army specialists, a trusted part of brigade commander Col. Dan Allyn's personal detail. Austin handles Allyn's administrative work. Melia is his radioman. On the Iraqi front, they also serve as Allyn's bodyguards.

"I'd take a bullet for that man," Austin says.

If Austin is high-voltage, Melia is his calm foil. He speaks only when spoken to and says he's embarrassed about his background.

He said he left home as a teenager to be with friends who hung out with Hell's Angels, tried drugs and ended up living in an Omaha park. When he had "no one else to mooch off of," he went to an Army recruiter.

A ninth-grade dropout, he nonetheless scored well above average on the Army's aptitude test. The recruiter told him he could become one of the elite U.S. Army Rangers if he cleaned himself up. And he did.

He parachuted into Afghanistan with the Rangers in October 2001 and survived two ambushes there. It took getting back home for trouble to strike.

He offers few details. He will only say it involved his ex-wife and that in the end he lost her, his 5-month-old son, rank as sergeant and his beloved work as a Ranger. He nearly got booted from the Army.

"Timmy's got heart," says Austin, who knows the story. "He showed a lot of character in what happened."

Austin said he grew up "pimping and dealing," learning the ropes of the Brooklyn criminal sub-culture. He married early and says his dealings provided him with luxuries teenagers don't normally have. Like Melia, he conceals the moment that changed his life.

Whatever it was, it caused him to turn to the Army. He fell in love—again—with his wife. Now, he talks incessantly about her and his two boys. He wears tattooed portraits of them on his body and says he'll get another when his wife delivers another son this June.

"Yo Frenchy," he calls out to Melia. "Why didn't you get any tattoos, hanging out with those racist Hell's Angels."

Melia cocks his head.

"I'm an individual on my own accord," he says. "I don't have to f------ draw on myself."

"You see, I'm having to take medication because Timmy's giving me an ulcer," Austin says.

"And a complex," Melia says.

"Yeah, and a complex," Austin says. "But you know I love you Timmy."

"Yeah, I love you too, Vince."


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

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