KIRKUK, Iraq — Troops from the 116th Brigade Combat Team lived in tents in Texas and chicken coops in Louisiana. In Iraq, the 116th's Bravo Company is living in luxury by comparison. They can shoot baskets. Tend vegetable gardens. And maybe swim in a pool this summer.
"Coming from home directly to this would have been miserable," Sgt. Jack Hagen of Boise said. "But considering what we went through at Fort Polk and Fort Bliss, this is really nice."
The patrol base is like a cross between a Soviet-era military installation and a 1970s YMCA.
Massive 12-foot-high concrete barriers, similar to freeway dividers, ring the base. The concrete is topped by 15-foot-tall chain-link fences. Razor wire is strung around most of the perimeter. Machine-gunners keep watch from numerous guard towers 24 hours a day.
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The patrol base is about 10 miles from the main U.S. air base in Kirkuk, known as Forward Operating Base Warrior. Troops here say they like being "farther away from the flagpole" — meaning away from the high-ranking officers.
"They tend to look for things for you
to do," Sgt. Hagen said. "And the farther you are away from the flagpole, the less people find things for us to do."
The patrol base also has been safer than the Kirkuk air base, which gets periodic mortar and rocket attacks. Those almost always land harmlessly.
At the patrol base, troops from the 116th have had just one drive-by shooting; no bullets landed inside the compound.
"I've never seen anything come into this place," Sgt. Lucas Kaserman of Boise said. "I talked to the guys before us and they only had one rocket that flew over the top."
Watch towers and Ferris wheels
The patrol base, one of three in northern Kirkuk manned by units of the 116th, is an old Iraqi recreation facility. Some soldiers say it was for Iraqi Army officers; others say it was a public rec center taken over by the Baath party. One Iraqi interpreter said it was for Saddam's security guards, but the public got to use the pool.
A paved four-lane highway runs just outside the base. Guard towers overlook a dirt soccer field to the northeast. To the northwest, a 50-foot tall Ferris wheel used for Iraqi wedding parties rises above the compound walls. At night it's often lit up, soldiers say, but none of them have seen it operate.
A luxurious but aged two-story home constructed mostly of cement and marble serves as Bravo Company's headquarters. The foyer is decorated with weapons captured during the 2003 invasion — rifles, pistols and a rocket launcher of British, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Jordanian and Egyptian make. A television is always playing Armed Forces Network's satellite-fed movies, sports and news.
The large living rooms have been converted into a command center and conference room. Each has wall-sized maps of the city. Two-way military radios blare static and reports from patrols in the city.
The company commander and first sergeant share a ground-floor bedroom, dubbed "The Swamp" after the tent Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John shared in TV's "M*A*S*H."
The 100-plus soldiers of Bravo Company make due with an assortment of furniture handed down or bought from previous soldiers. Furnishings are a comfortable mismatch in a frat-house-meets-rummage-sale theme.
Most of the troops live in two long, rectangular cinderblock-and-stucco buildings behind the headquarters house. Soldiers converted large, open rooms into 2-by-4-framed plywood catacombs that partition off the bunk beds and provide some privacy.
Other areas are set aside for common space with television sets, couches and chairs.
"It's our plywood paradise," said Staff Sgt. Tony Fackrell of Boise. He and other soldiers carried carpentry tools all the way from Boise. Fackrell's Boise employer, Franklin Building Supply, sent over a set of Hitachi power tools for the soldiers to use in their construction projects.
Fackrell built a bed for the company commander, Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise, along with a bookshelf and dresser. "I like to make stuff with wood," Fackrell said.
So do others. Nearly every plywood catacomb has been customized with shelves and cabinets.
'It's not home, but it's what they give me'
Staff Sgt. Ron Eckley of Burley created a miniature studio apartment in a corner of the living quarters. His 8-by-12-foot space has an elevated bed, a free-standing closet, an upholstered chair, a TV, DVD player and chest of drawers.
"It's not home, but it's what they give me," Eckley said.
In another area, a triple-decker bunk has the entire top bed enclosed to the ceiling in plywood, like a tree fort in the middle of the room.
Nearly all the catacombs are decorated with mementos from home: family portraits, snapshots of girlfriends, photos of kids in Halloween costumes and mothers holding babies, and letters decorated with hearts in the blocky, oversized handwriting of schoolchildren.
And ubiquitous pin-up girls — bikinied, implanted young hotties from Maxim, FHM and Lowrider magazines. Some catacombs are completely wallpapered with them.
Hot meals, delivered
Soldiers eat on the base, but there's no dining facility. Hot breakfasts and dinners arrive daily from the air base. They come in locking plastic containers that look like coolers, each with a stainless-steel tray inside heated or cooled by hot water or ice.
The food is set out picnic style inside a screened plywood porch with a brick floor. The soldiers eat off paper plates with plastic silverware. For lunch they eat cold cuts, MREs or snacks hoarded from other meals.
The courtyard outside the building is airy and almost park-like. Picnic tables and patios provide soldiers space to relax, smoke cigarettes or strum guitars.
But bathrooms and showers are inside the living quarters — a relief for the soldiers of Bravo Company who had to hoof it to the latrines when they trained last year in Louisiana and Texas.
"If you have to take a pee," Hagen said, "you don't have to walk 100 meters."