"Incoming!" a soldier shouts when the first rocket explodes outside a dusty US military outpost near the Pakistan border.
It's dusk - the guerrillas' favorite time to strike and then slip away.
Moments later, the shrill, descending whistle of another rocket ends with a boom and dark cloud several hundred yards to our right.
Soldiers pull on their helmets and flak vests and bound toward a concrete bunker reinforced with sandbags. After they're crammed inside, nervous energy fuels black humor. "You're a lousy aim!" one GI yells toward the adjacent mountainside.
"Everything's half off tomorrow at the haji market," says another, imitating a vendor at the weekly Afghan bazaar. "You buy blankets, I buy rockets!" he says. The harassing attack drags on for more than an hour.
Life for US troops in Afghanistan's lawless borderlands is often like this, a swirl of danger and drollery, of combat and coping.
Here in rugged Paktika Province, soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division's 1-87 Battalion have spent months operating from small, dark, mud-brick encampments that are some of the US military's most remote and spartan bases.
It's a daily struggle, not just against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents, but with loneliness, boredom, and the trauma of losing their own. A handful of soldiers, unable to take the stress, has been temporarily evacuated or repatriated. Yet most show resilience as they grapple with risk, entertain one another, and wonder about life at home.
In December, when a Monitor reporter visited the Orgun firebase, a sign painted in big red letters on the wall of the cramped weight room read: "The Enemy Trained to Kill You Today. What Did You Do?"
Inside the camp's low walls, signs like these - along with paintings commemorating three fallen comrades - are a reminder of dangers lurking "outside the wire."
Sgt. Paul Roberts, a medic with 1-87's Charlie Company, strains to complete another set of bench-presses with 135 pounds. "It helps keep my morale up to keep fit and ready," he says, as one of the battalion's adopted dogs curls up nearby.
Amid the rhythm of rolling out on uncertain missions and coming back to clean weapons and pull guard duty, humor is another constant outlet for the soldiers.
Pfc. Joshua Howe, an infantryman from Newport, N.H., cultivates a goofy image. Nicknamed Clark Kent, he makes a point of driving his Humvee while wearing a pair of glasses that have no lenses."I figure we could die any minute," he says, "so we might as well have some fun."
Like generations before them, many of the soldiers also develop a superstitious side, never leaving camp without certain amulets, coins, or other "protective" charms.
One young lieutenant reaches into his pocket and pulls out a worn silver dollar. "My great-uncle was wounded in France in World War II," says Lt. Johnny Ulsamer. "When he was in the hospital he would rub this," he says, feeling the coin's smooth face.
Veteran Staff Sgt. Michael Raymond finds solace - and an unusual leadership tool - in the form of an eight-inch GI Joe action figure he calls "Ranger Buddy."
"My son wanted to come with me, and he couldn't, so he told me to take Ranger Buddy instead," says Sergeant Raymond of Trout River, N.Y. He carries the figure everywhere in the back of his flak vest and whispers to it during night patrols.
"It breaks the fear and monotony," he says, adding, "I have to have someone watching my backside."
As the leader of a 13-man squad, Raymond also uses the figure to show his men he's human. "I guess you could say I still play with dolls," he says, "but I did all the macho stuff, and I'm also 42, so I don't have to be [tough] all the time."
Some soldiers draw strength from a more somber source, a belief that those killed in action are protecting them.
Cpl. Chris Dedrick, of Delevan, N.Y., looks far younger than his 21 years, but is already serving his second tour in Afghanistan. He carries with him a woven tag bearing the name "Fuller," which belonged to his friend and former platoon member Spc. Chad Fuller, a sniper killed in an ambush in August.
"It feels like he's with us when we go on patrol," Corporal Dedrick says softly, "like he's watching us."
For others, the memory of the dead is more troubling.
Pvt. Joseph Meadows of 1-87's Alpha Company has been in some scrapes before. An orphan raised by his grandmother in West Virginia, he grew up making trouble and joined the Army to avoid three years in jail.
Yet nothing prepared the impish soldier for the close combat he's seen in Afghanistan. More than once, enemy machine-gun bursts have shredded the limbs of a tree where he took cover.
While committed to his job, any bravado Private Meadows felt about soldiering has faded. "You'd have to be crazy to actually want to kill someone," he says. Weighed down by his rucksack, he says he throws up every time he's in combat.
He also has few illusions about dying for his country. "You're only a hero a few days," he estimates, "unless you've done something spectacular, and then they'll name a road after you or something."
In his most difficult moment, Meadows saw a good friend die. Pvt. Evan O'Neill was shot in an intense fight near the Pakistani border on Sept. 29. "It messes with your mind," says Meadows, as he sits on his cot sewing a button on his pants.
At night, his ears ring so badly that he hums himself to sleep. Then, he says, he dreams about O'Neill.
* * *
At 6 a.m. sharp, 1st Sgt. Andrew Spano's voice blasts over the loudspeaker system he rigged up the night before at the tiny, mud-walled US compound perched on the Afghanistan border at Shkin.
Making a noise that sounds like a kazoo, Sergeant Spano "plays" Reveille, causing soldiers to groan in their bunks. Puppies with names like JDAM (a GPS-guided bomb) poke their noses out of houses the soldiers built for them.
"Wakey! Wakey! It's time for tea and cakey!" Spano says brightly.
Then, just in case anyone is still asleep, he puts on the screaming lyrics of "Bodies" by the hard-metal rock band Drowning Pool. It's a theme song of sorts for US troops:
"Skin against skin, blood and bone
You're all by yourself but you're not alone
You wanted in
Now you're here
Driven by hate, consumed by fear
Let the bodies hit the floor, Let the bodies hit the floor...
Nothing's wrong with me, Nothing's wrong with me...
Something's gotta give, Something's gotta give..."
A few days later, Spano's announcement system mysteriously breaks; sabotage is suspected.
In between combat missions, 1-87 soldiers often resort to pranks, self-parodies, and other concocted entertainment that builds camaraderie and eases cabin fever in the isolated outpost.
Soldiers celebrating birthdays here have been dragged out of bed, handcuffed with plastic strips, bound in olive-green duct tape, and then doused with cold water, shaving cream, and various table seasonings.
"The [Afghan] interpreters saw us in the middle of the compound and started asking 'Qaeda? Qaeda?' They thought we were detainees," said one soldier who got the late-night treatment.
Soldiers of 1-87's Charlie Company have staged more creative diversions to break up the camp's long hours of darkness.
One night, they put on a skit spoofing their commanders using puppets they fashioned out of Popsicle sticks.
On another, they had a movie and bonfire. The highlight, though, was "casino night," an evening of blackjack, craps, and other betting games in which the soldiers used live bullets from their weapons as chips. "One round equaled $5 worth of stuff," says Cpl. Clayton Fuchs of Cortez, Colo.
Perhaps the camp's favorite entertainer is Pvt. Jeremy Wilson, a medic of the 10th Military Police. The sign on the wooden door to his mud-walled room reads "Welcome to the Pig Pen."
"It stands for pride, integrity, and guts," he says in a slow drawl.
A former band member from Scottsboro, Ala., Private Wilson says he joined the Army after losing his college scholarship because he "partied a little too much."
He's now saving money for a truck, and has found new appreciation for his musical skills, which he hopes eventually to parlay into a career.
"I take the day's events, things that are funny, and I elaborate on them," says Wilson, who composes songs that poke fun at everyone from the commanding general to the lowest private.
When he picks up his steel-stringed acoustic guitar, called a "flattop," he usually has a captive audience.
His latest musical parody is a takeoff on a song about a jilted lover, "She Hates Me" by the band Puddle of Mudd. Naturally, Wilson calls it "The Army Hates Me."
"The haji food sometimes makes me hurl,
At least Kandahar has Air Force girls,
I have to shower with another man
And on top of that fight the Taliban.
The Army hates me..."
One of the biggest sources of comfort - but also worry - for the soldiers of 1-87 lies on the home front.
Bundles of mail delivered by helicopter bring everything from letters to boxes of fudge, Christmas trees, and hand-knit socks from Mom.
But word from home can also mean arguments and breakups, and a few soldiers say they'll be going back to empty houses.
"They say 'My girlfriend left me,' or 'I may not trust my wife; she might be out there,' " relates battalion Chaplin Ken Godwin, who adds that such relationships top the list of concerns the men bring to him.
To bridge the gulf of time and distance, some soldiers write, phone, or e-mail home as often as they can.
Pfc. Patrick Barrett keeps a daily journal for his "girl," Katie. "Today was stupid," he writes in a small green notebook one afternoon as he sits on the hood of his Humvee.
Others minimize contact with those back home - and the pain it can evoke. "I try not to call at all because it makes me sad," says Private Howe of New Hampshire, explaining that an extended deployment means he'll probably miss the birth of his first child: "I was supposed to be home, but good ol' Uncle Sam....'
Indeed, for many of these 10th Mountain Division soldiers, there's a Rip Van Winkle feeling of life passing them by while they're at war.
"When you're here, it's like everything at home is fast-forward, and you're standing still or in reverse," says Meadows, who has a girlfriend back in West Virginia. "I don't want to go home and find out my life done left me."