A soldier's day: bugs, heat, and no shower

Life in Camp Marlboro revolves around the effort to keep order in the streets of Baghdad, but also around a nonstop battle with mosquitoes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When US marines came rolling down the highway headed for downtown Baghdad six weeks ago, Iraqi forces knew the perfect place to ambush them. They positioned snipers on the roof of the tallest building around, a five-story office tower at a government-owned cigarette factory in east Baghdad.

After the Marines stormed the building to take out the snipers, they looked around and liked what they saw. So they moved into what has since been dubbed Camp Marlboro.

Today, the factory complex is occupied by the 2nd Squadron of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Polk, La. The squadron, which replaced the Marines in this area of the city, uses the facility as a base for patrols across much of eastern Baghdad.

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The factory offers an ideal location for a military unit because it is surrounded by an eight-foot wall topped with barbed wire. In addition, there is a cafeteria, substantial parking, and an auditorium used during the day as a place to watch satellite television news and at night to show movies via a DVD player and projector.

The complex's five-story office tower has been dubbed "The Hilton" by Sgt. Maj. Charles Waters. There are also several single-story office buildings and three warehouses for making, packing, and storing cigarettes.

What's it like living at Camp Marlboro? "It's hot," says Spc. Michael Tabor of Vinton, La.

"I can't wait until July when they say it gets up to 115 degrees," adds Spc. Robert Freed of Fort Myers, Fla.

Then there are the flies and mosquitoes. Some soldiers call them Saddam Hussein's air force. "You could fight off a million flies just so the second million come in," says Pfc. Ricky Abernathy of Brenham, Texas, as he swats a mosquito.

Like much of the rest of Baghdad, power and water supplies are unpredictable. But recently, both have been on more than off. Technicians are even working on the air-conditioning system.

Temperatures are already regularly into the 100s. And showers are few and far between.

One of the worst-kept secrets among those who live in "The Hilton" is that the private bathroom off the chief executive's office on the fifth floor has a shower and tub. Next to going home, a shower in that bathroom is just about the most coveted thing out here.

Another solution to the shower shortage has been to set up a special piece of equipment used to wash down soldiers should there be an attack with chemical weapons. In effect, it is just a big shower.

The combination of extreme heat and windblown, powdery dust make such showers the ultimate luxury. But soldiers are instructed to conserve water. Many get by with one shower a week. Other days, they use moist towelettes and a ton of deodorant, giving new meaning to the term "force protection."

When the US Army first arrived at the cigarette factory, the security situation was anything but settled. "During the day, you could hear shooting at least every 15 minutes, and at night, it was just out of control - all night," says Sgt. 1st Class Mark Barnes of Opp, Ala.

Soldiers who sleep outside say it was like a fireworks show with all the tracers arcing over the compound and the sound of bullets whizzing overhead.

"Now I don't know if I've gotten used to it, but I don't wake up at night because of gunfire," Sergeant Barnes says. On average, he says, there is gunfire once every two hours.

Stories about the cigarette factory being in the middle of a shooting gallery made their way downtown. Some representatives of relief organizations are still reluctant to come here to the neighborhood of Thawra because they believe it is unsafe.

Aware of this problem, 2nd Squadron officials met with a local religious leader and asked him to urge residents to refrain from shooting their weapons.

The religious leader got the word out - no more shooting. "We went from repeated fire throughout the city to quiet overnight," says Major Waters.

In addition, when there is gunfire, it is not aimed at the US military. "Since we've been here, there hasn't been one round fired at this compound that I know of," Waters says.

Food is another big attraction at Camp Marlboro. The cafeteria is open for breakfast and dinner.

A cafeteria breakfast includes eggs, sausage, waffles, and fruit cocktail. There are several dinner menus: chow mein on rice, chicken and dumplings on rice, and shrimp Creole on rice. (Some soldiers detect a trend.)

Lunch is an MRE, or meal ready to eat. MREs come in 24 different entrees, which can be eaten either hot or cold.

You can't actually say this out loud around Army personnel, but MREs aren't that bad. The reason you can't say it around Army personnel is because they have to eat MREs for six or nine months at a time during a deployment. But for a few weeks, they can be amazingly tasty.

Everyone has a favorite.

"Beef enchilada, that's a good one," says Sgt. Steven Jones of Dothan, Ala. He says the secret is mixing the enchilada with a packet of jalapeño cheese spread.

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