Desert-floor luxuries: M&Ms and toilet paper

Food: Bottled water and meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) in brown plastic packages are a soldier's staples. Of the more than 20 varieties of MREs, some, such as "black bean burrito," are assiduously avoided. "Beef stew" is a favorite, because it includes jalapeño cheese spread, which soldiers prefer to fortified peanut butter. "If soldiers are deployed, they pick MREs for the meal, but if they are training in the field, they pick them for the goodies" - like M&Ms or Skittles, which are tradable commodities, explains Specialist Kelly Rowland. Each MRE has a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce. "Tabasco saves everything," Rowland says.

Hygiene: Washing, shaving, and brushing teeth are rare luxuries - a serious deprivation in Iraq, where sand and dust coat faces, hair, eyebrows, and hands. Baby wipes are treasured. Toilet paper, too, is carefully guarded. With virtually no privacy, when and where to eliminate bodily waste is a daily source of banter, especially in a mixed-sex Army. If time permits, a poncho strung between two vehicles with a bungee cord is a welcome refuge. Bathroom humor is alive and well.

Prized possessions: Extra AA batteries for GPS systems, goggles for sandstorms, and Leatherman tools for everything from opening MREs to fixing vehicles, are sought after. Also handy are tiny red clip-on flashlights and single-use cameras for taking souvenir photos of camels, Iraqi children, and buddies.

Nicknames: Soldiers like nicknames. For example, two tankers here have "Tower I" and "Tower II" scrawled on their barrels in reference to the World Trade Center. They give their Humvees names like "Tan Banshee." Most Army units also have colorful nicknames, such as "Roaddawgs," "Dynamite," and "Viper," that make up radio call signs. Soldiers who don't know how to communicate correctly on the radio elicit great disdain. Staple phrases include "Roger" and "Wilco" ("Yes" or "OK"), "Clear copy" ("I understand"), "over" ("over to you"), "break" ("I'll have more to say"), and "out" ("end of conversation").

NCOs: They don't call 1st Sgt. Harry Jeffries "Killer Pit Bull" for nothing. A 20-year Army veteran with a loud bark and a short fuse, he personifies the noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who are the backbone of the US military. Senior enlisted men like Sergeant Jeffries take orders from commissioned officers who are usually years younger and far less experienced. But privately, the NCOs assure you: They run the show and save officers from their own bungling.

Like most NCOs, Jeffries has attitude. A green banner on the antenna of his Humvee proclaims, "Backbone: Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way." "Unlike officers, we don't have to be tactful," he explains, splashing water on his shaved head and putting on his silver-rimmed sunglasses. Good NCOs have an uncanny ability to predict soldiers' actions. When one driver fails to move, Jeffries knows she's fallen asleep. When the commanding officer drives off, while the convoy stalls in a sandstorm, Jeffries speeds up from behind. "Maintenance two," he radios, "are you aware that the rest of the convoy is not behind you?"

"Negative," the officer answers.

Cursing: Soldiers' cursing is colorful and ubiquitous. Most sentences contain at least one vulgarity, and words are sometimes split apart, with swear words inserted between syllables for extra emphasis.

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