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Life in a remote US Army outpost in Iraq: IEDs, DVDs, and A/C

Doria, near Kiruk, is part of the new US counterinsurgency effort, where 110-degree heat isn't the only foe US troops face.

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The soldier's new best friend, the laptop computer, is illuminated on beds, across chests. The laptops run games, movies, old TV series ("M*A*S*H" is one favorite). An Iraqi card game, 51, taught by the Iraqi "terps," or interpreters, occupies a few cots. Doria has a modest array of weights and benches spread out under the water tower, so some conversations run to how much one can bench-press, and bulking up.

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"I was skinny when I got" to Iraq, "but I changed that," says Pfc. Alex Franjul, from Homestead, Fla. "I hit the weights, but I also put away some serious chicken quesadillas" at the Kirkuk-base Taco Bell, he says.

Doria has no Internet access, but a few clever soldiers find ways to get online and talk to family: They buy international Iraqi cellphones from the platoon's "terps."

"The lack of communications can be, you know, kind of depressing when something like this comes up," says Pfc. Christopher Bursh, of Syracuse, N.Y., who was just informed by the Red Cross that his grandfather has died. His mother is "disappointed I won't be with her at this time," he says, "but I have a job here.... We're restoring Iraq."

Despite the obvious challenges, Doria's commander is enthusiastic about the progress he's seen since the outpost was set up last fall.

"This area has come leaps and bounds in security over the last six months," says Captain Graebner, of Fairfax, Va. "We've got the IA [Iraqi Army] down here, we're reestablishing the IP [Iraqi police], and we've put in $1.5 million in projects like water and school refurbishing since October. We're still seeing a lot of intimidation from AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] and the rest of them," he adds, "but the way I figure it, intimidation is directed towards what's most successful."

But among the soldiers crashed on cots as night falls, conversations rarely stray into the heavy whys and wherefores of Iraq. But a visitor does hear some shared convictions: We have a job to do and we will do it; this platoon has been through a lot together, and we will be there for each other.

'Doing good work every day'

Beneath the bravado, the tedium, the soldierly trash talk, and the countdowns to redeployment back home is a more or less articulated sense of involvement in something larger than oneself.

"Personally I don't think we should be in either [Iraq or Afghanistan]," says Spc. Devon Walker, of Amarillo, Texas, referring to the two places he's served. "We took out Saddam [Hussein] and stood up a government. Now it should be up to them," he says. "But that said, we are doing good work every day we're out here."

Spc. Andrew Rindfleisch from Vermilion, Ohio, also says that he doesn't think the US military should be in Iraq. "But I'm serving my country, and if that's what my country wants me to do, then I'll do my job," says the Humvee gunner.

"We're moving in on the bad guys, but that's never going to be enough. We're more concerned with building up the Iraqi people right now, and that's important," he adds. "If you just go out and kill the insurgents, there will always be more insurgents."

[Editor's note: 1st Lt. Frank Walkup, who was interviewed for this story, was killed by a bomb during a foot patrol on June 16 in Rashad, Iraq. Read more here.]

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