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For Marines in central Iraq, shooting slows, MREs back to 3 a day

SOUTHEAST OF BAGHDAD, Iraq—The war zone has its small pleasures.

Friday was a good day for the Marines of Kilo Company. For one, it was the third day in a row that no one had shot at them. Second, the people in the towns they passed through seemed genuinely friendly, reaching their hands out to touch the Marines as they went by.

And, perhaps most important of all, their rations returned to three meals-ready-to-eat a day. At one point, when supplies were moving slowly and the fighting was heavy, the Marines were down to one MRE a day. Those days, just last week, morale was bad and energy low. In recent days they'd risen to two a day. Friday, it was back to three, a big boost to morale.

The MRE is not just a source of nourishment. It also is a source of diversion.

There are 25 different MREs, from hamburger to chicken alfredo, though the meats seem to be of similar size and shape. But it's the snacks that make the MRE interesting. An MRE may include a piece of cake, or some cookies or some trail mix. There are Tootsie Rolls and Skittles. Peanut M&M's are very rare.

Marines like to swap the treats, adding entertainment and suspense to each meal.

Don't laugh. For the past 23 days, these Marines have lived and slept in quilted chemical suits. They have had no showers and endured supply shortages. At Nasiriyah they had to cross the bridge with guns blazing, shooting at anything that moved.

"No one shot at us," Lance Cpl. Jason Teed, of Gulfport, Miss., said Wednesday, the first day in which he hadn't taken fire in a long time.

That had been a good day, too, at the town of Muwaffaqiyah, where the Marines uncovered an arms cache that included 500 mortar shells, grenades, assault rifles and pistols. It hadn't been hard. "We were just looking in windows," said Capt. Joseph Bevan, Kilo Company's executive officer.

The townspeople seemed comfortable with the Marines. They lined the road by the hundreds to wave. "Apparently, the Saddam Fedayeen guys fled a couple of days ago," Bevan said, referring to the paramilitary supporters of Saddam Hussein who have been responsible for many of the attacks on U.S. forces.

The Marines found the residents very cooperative. "They just watched while we cleared their homes," said Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Organ of Chula Vista, Calif. Some invited Marines into their homes. "They were real friendly."

Saturday, Kilo Company is to search for more weapons caches at another town as it makes its way toward Baghdad. The Marines hope the reception will be as warm.

Until then, they are enjoying their food and hoping for that rare hamburger MRE. "I had one for breakfast," said Medical Corpsman Aaron Spaulding of Dana Point, Calif. "I savored it."

And they're thinking about the food they hope they'll have when they get home.

"We've been talking about chicken, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and a glass of Kool-Aid," said Staff Sgt. Terry Love of Zion, Ill.

"Man, what I wouldn't give for one of those 32-ounce slushy drinks," said Lance Cpl. Christopher Norvell of Abingdon, Ill. "I'll never take anything for granted again."


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