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Off to a morning meeting, climbing over a 10-foot sand berm

MARINE CAMP CHESTY, Iraq—First Lt. Faye Hutchison went over the berm Monday morning.

That is not intended as a metaphor. She actually did climb over one of the 10-foot high sand triangles that serve as protective walls for those at military camps in Iraq. She made the climb, slipping backwards with the loose sand on the way up, just after breakfast.

On typical mornings in the Bravo Company camp she meets with several folks—including the first sergeant, the gunnery sergeant and the commanding officer—under a span of camouflage netting strung between poles with palm tree-like tops. They sit on boxes or small chairs they plant in the hard, orange sand.

One Marine holds a single short-wave radio, occasionally cranking a lever on the side to boost power and spinning the antennae to eliminate at least some of the harsh crackles that come with desert radio. The Marines eat cold packaged food and listen to the morning BBC news.

The Marines, part of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion, listen closely because an understanding of what is going on around you is one of the first casualties of war, along with personal hygiene and privacy. No news is available here.

There are no phones to call home and ask. There is no Internet here. Even the Marine radio system, which looks like something straight off the set of the old "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" television show, rarely works and almost never brings in news.

So while a few curse a perceived anti-American slant on the BBC, the morning news is a precious ritual. And this morning, after Hutchison went over the berm, this is about what she had been able to glean through the cracklings and squawks: The war was going fairly well for her side.

She had gone over the berm on this day to visit the nearby headquarters of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, hoping to run into a few of the friends she had made while training in the Middle East in recent years who are now attached to the headquarters.

And she did see some people she knew, including the husband of a close friend. But each time she spoke with someone, something odd would happen. Armed with her small bit of world news, she found herself overwhelmed by the others' grasp of what was going on around her.

"How do you know all this?" she asked one.

"What, don't you have CNN?" he answered.

"Television?" she asked.

She was brought to a small portable office. People sat in cushioned chairs in the air-conditioning room, offering hot coffee and tea and waffles. In the back of this room was a television, where, indeed, CNN runs most of the time.

To her left were six computers, all hooked up by blue cables to the Internet, and each turned to a different news site. On a desk to her right, there were several satellite phones.

"This is nothing," she was told. A nearby building housed the real whiz-bang stuff: satellite uplinks that let you watch anything going on anywhere in the war, in real time.

Hutchison gawked for a while and drank in the information: U.S. forces were pushing through Baghdad and the city seemed to be falling fast.

She walked around and chatted, and listened, as long as she could.

And then she smiled and shook her head, and climbed back over the berm, to her home.


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