The A/C is finally up and running again in the large tents of the 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division's Doria outpost – and not a moment too soon.
At the end of a long day patrolling the simmering Rashad Valley southwest of Kirkuk, the soldiers just want to sink onto a cool cot and watch a movie on a laptop – pirated copies of "Spider-Man 3" are a current favorite. Or play a game of cards. Or sleep.
In the summer of this US counterinsurgency effort, 110-degree Iraqi heat is one of the more predictable foes the troops face. "It is one of those things that can hurt morale, and we are getting H-O-T," says Staff Sgt. Kreskin Smith of Auburn, Ala. as he chug-a-lugs Gatorade.
Sergeant Smith is in Doria on a six-day rotation. This is one of dozens of outposts the US is setting up across Iraq to get more troops out among the Iraqi people. It's part of the strategy being implemented by Gen. David Petraeus, which requires a lot of patience of young American soldiers raised in a quick-results culture. And it's a big reason why US casualties in Iraq are ratcheting up; May is now the deadliest month in 2007, with 112 fatalities.
That reality is not lost on the soldiers of Doria on this May evening. Just this afternoon a patrol was hit by an IED, or improvised explosive device. With soldierly humor the guys who were on the patrol are called "virgins," because no one was killed or even injured. The IED misfired.
In some cases the US military's new outposts are no more than a house in an urban neighborhood or a tribal village. In Baghdad as part of the "surge" of US troops, the mushrooming American footprint aims to protect local residents from insurgents and rival militias.
No Taco Bell at 'Fort Doria'
In others cases like Doria – named after Staff Sgt. Richwell Doria, who was killed in action here last November as US soldiers battled to clear the area of Sunni insurgents – the outposts are more reminiscent of a fort in the Old West. A few tents, a command post, and a fleet of Humvees and provisioning trucks are enclosed by high, thick walls of sandbags.
Since February, platoons of soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade have been rotating into Doria for six-day stints from the large US Army and Air Force base "Warrior" 30 miles up the highway in Kirkuk. Life at Warrior can resemble life on any US military base: there are large dining halls with Baskin- Robbins ice cream, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Internet cafes.
Doria's different. The chow wagon is a trailer with two cooks. The dining hall consists of a few metal picnic tables under a camouflage net. Water is trucked in. There are no showers.
"We got a little ahead of ourselves before, when the thinking was to keep all our soldiers to these large bases," says Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk. "Now with footholds like Doria, thephilosophy is to establish ourselves among the people so they trust us and the Iraqi officials we're helping to stand up."
The outpost's dual mission: Keep the Rashad Valley from returning to the insurgents who controlled it just six months ago, and help the new local Iraqi officials – a mayor and city council, a post of the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police – establish legitimacy.
As a Sunni Arab stronghold, the valley is full of people who still feel the sting of Saddam Hussein's fall – and who fear the rise of the province's more prosperous Kurdish population.
On some days, Doria's soldiers carry out joint patrols with counterparts from the Iraqi Army and police. Their patrol-base commander, Capt. Jonathan Graebner, meets weekly with the mayor of Rashad, leaders of the security forces, and village leaders to help them persuade a reluctant population that the new Iraqi authorities are working for them.
The US soldiers don't build the water projects or new schools the villages want, but they facilitate the visits of the civil-affairs assessment teams that come from Kirkuk to see what services are needed.
But Doria's soldiers are also hunting down "bad guys," the ones who pay local farm boys $100 to plant the IEDs.
As three US Humvees leave Doria on an afternoon patrol, they pass Rashad's modest high school, its classrooms silent and its windows shattered, abandoned after "terrorists" threatened teachers to either leave or be killed. They left.
The Humvees also pass under a giant elevated "wanted" poster with the images of three men sought for carrying out local terrorist acts. But the billboard also stands as an unintended symbol of the dangers facing Iraqis and foreign soldiers alike. Earlier this month, the four men from Kirkuk hired by the US military to hang the antiterror ad were ambushed and killed shortly after completing the job. Members of the Rashad police had tipped off insurgent friends that the billboard hangers had finished and were heading north on the highway, setting in motion the attack.
Plying the dusty roads that link earthen villages, the soldiers stop to discuss water needs and school supplies with village elders. Later, they assist the Iraqi police at a kidnapping scene on the highway to Tikrit.
Did the farmers plant the IED?
A three-hour tour of a few villages stretches into a seven-hour patrol after an IED misfires beneath the middle truck of the convoy. No one is hurt, no visible damage is done, and the initial assessment is that it was a small device. But the tension is suddenly palpable after an explosives disposal team arrives and reveals the IED was in fact a large, multiheaded device buried within many pounds of fuel and accelerant. It simply failed to function as designed.
"Once again, we missed our ticket home," jokes 1st Lt. Frank Walkup of Woodbury, Tenn., the patrol leader, initiating a round of tension-releasing black humor among his crew.
But the incident also sets eyes scanning the arid, deserted fields. Are the hands that planted these explosives in the ground now wrapped around a hoe or a shepherd's staff?
"It's like fighting ghosts out here," says Lieutenant Walkup. "We have a huge area to cover, and you may not see that much going on, but we have proof enough that they're out there."
Spotting a group of men and boys working on a field pump, Walkup's Humvee stops to investigate. "Is this where you came after you planted that IED in the ground?" Walkup demands. The farmers insist they know nothing.
The patrol's interpreter tells them that if they plant IEDs, they will be turned over to the Iraqi Army, "and they will torture you." The youngest of the farmers begins to cry. Lest the American soldiers see that as an admission of guilt, one of the older farmers hastens to explain: The boy is crying because his brother was recently killed by insurgents simply for selling bootleg gasoline on the highway. The farmers are allowed to resume their field work.
The patrol returns to Doria. Cumbersome body armor is stripped off, and the chow wagon beckons; The evening's fare of chicken burritos earns the cooks a little extra praise. Nightfall brings little relief from the heat, so the tents fill quickly.
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.
"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.]