For GIs, Camp Fallujah is a family affair

Marines bond over war stories, Purple Hearts, and salty language as they prepare to fight the enemy.

The board in the entrance hall of the Bravo Surgical Company shows seven patients due to arrive, and labels them "routine."

But inside, the emotive power of two typical marine patients is far from routine. The scene here, like others around this sprawling Marine base a few miles east of Fallujah, is a mixture of the sacred and the profane. Fighting dovetails with rest and laughter, providing a window into the daily lives of US occupation forces on Iraq's front lines.

Pulled out of an ambush with a bullet wound below his left knee - and now sitting on a stretcher as surgeons pluck it out - Lance Cpl. Lucas Lytal takes his strength from the handful of family photos that marines drew from his pockets and laid on his bare chest.

"That's my wife and family - they have been with me every minute," says Corporal Lytal, holding up the pictures for a visitor to see. Moments later, he holds the 7.62mm slug extracted from his leg, and smiles.

Family is everywhere in Camp Fallujah. Marine tattoos - its hard to find a gun-bearing lad or lass in this base without one - include the classic "Mom" inside a heart.

Supposedly there was a memo sent out prohibiting animal parts being fixed to armored vehicles. But that message didn't get through to one group of grunts, who have attached a ram's skull to the front of theirs.

"Gunner Tiffany" - Lance Cpl. Tiffany Pilataxi of Sullivan, Mo. - out on convoy to supply water to nearby camps, talks about the double-take she gets from male comrades when they see her in the gunner's spot.

Haircuts are free - and short. There is jocular jostling, and the telling of war stories, and language as salty as it comes. And there is the kind of bonding that you find among GIs, who have endured much together.

That bond was evident beside the stretcher of Cpl. Eugene Koushnir, whose 19th birthday was marked with an in-and-out bullet wound to the back. He was carried in with a "Happy B-Day" sticker on his forehead, vowing to return immediately to the fight, to kill more militants.

His commanding officer, Lt. Col. Giles Kyser from Dumfries, Va., was there to give encouragement. He kneels down and places his large hand on his grunt's shaved head. "We've still got your spot, Warlord," Colonel Kyser says, eliciting a smile. "I'll keep it open."

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