April 3, 2003

BASHUR, NORTHERN IRAQ - They get up at first light. "Stand to," the sergeants say, shaking the feet of those who don't seem to be stirring.

Mornings have been bitterly cold, so they keep on their snivel gear (that's what they call hats and fleece tops) as they wait for Habib (that's what they call the sun) to get a little higher in the sky and start beaming warmth.

Before they eat or brush their teeth, they check and clean their weapons.

None of them gets uninterrupted sleep, because they run guard shifts -two hours on, four hours off. They have to do that, because they are providing security for hundreds of other soldiers - mainly rear-echelon types they call pogues, for "People Other than Grunts - who sack out on cots in thick tents a half-mile away near headquarters.

They don't have cots. They are an infantry platoon.

They bed down on a thin inflatable pad under a cursory shelter made from ponchos stretched over stakes. Instead of a sleeping bag, they use a thin poncho liner and a waterproof cover. When the cold and shivering becomes unbearable, they snuggle up together, unashamedly.

Men like them were once the bedrock of the army, though in this war they have been eclipsed by tanks and planes and fancy bombs.

Their gear and food and weapons are better, but they live the way foot-soldiers have lived for thousands of years. They perform difficult, monotonous tasks and usually aren't told why. They wallow in dirt and have no place to wash. They go to the bathroom in a trench that they dig themselves and cover over when they leave.

They volunteered for this, and take some measure of satisfaction in their hardships.

"It's a strange paradox," said Sgt. Chris Charo, 24, of Saratoga, N.Y., "because as much as we hate living like this, it's a point of pride."

This particular collection of 40 paratroopers is known as 2nd Platoon - one of three in Able Company, which is one of three rifle companies in the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry. This reporter has spent the last week living with them at their checkpoints around what the army calls Bashur Airfield.

They are part of the Vicenza, Italy,-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, a force of around 2,000 which, other than some special operators, are the only U.S. troops in this part of Iraq. The brigade's mission this far has been to secure the airfield and bring in more firepower for future operations in the north.

Second platoon's members are a slice of male America (women aren't allowed in front line combat units). They hail from the East Coast, the West Ccoast and points in between. They are black, white, Hispanic and Asian. They range in age from 19-37. About a quarter are married, and some have young children.

In the field, living 24-hours-a-day with men they have known and worked with for two years, their sentences are laced with profanity. Their jokes are dark and unprintable.

But many are mature, thoughtful, well-informed men. The oldest, Troy Ezernack, 37, of Shreveport, La., was once a pastor in Lancaster, Pa.

Most say they joined the army to serve their country, but now their biggest concern is one another.

"I've got 39 families just praying right now that I bring their sons back home," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Gueringer, 30, of Los Angeles, the platoon sergeant who runs things along with Lt. Larry Lee, 33, of San Francisco.

Over at the airfield, some soldiers have internet access, crude bathrooms and showers. The men of 2nd platoon clean with wet-naps and hand sanitizer. One day, as a treat, they washed their feet and socks in a nearby creek.

To the grunts, though, their life is a relative picnic, because it hasn't rained. When they last did field training in Germany, they spent 15 straight days living under cold drizzle with temperatures hovering around freezing.

Here, the challenge is the temperature change. Habib is their Middle Eastern variant on the usual army term for the sun - Bob, for Big Orange Blob. Habib is a friend in the early hours, but he becomes fierce and unforgiving in the afternoon, especially in the open with no shade.

The paratroopers hate sitting as glorified security guards, fingering their machine guns and M-4 rifles. They are elite soldiers, better trained than the average grunt. The problem is, once they jump out of the airplane they are just another lightly armed group of ground-pounders in a war being fought by men in armored vehicles and jet airplanes.

Second platoon is feeling especially left out at the moment, not only because of the battles raging in the south. Other elements of the 173rd moved out Wednesday night to Irbil, 40 miles to the southwest. Those troops are supposed to mount combat patrols and seek to engage Iraqi forces. Second platoon has been told they may also pursue a similar mission elsewhere, but as they listen to news of fighting around Baghdad on their shortwave radios, they wonder whether they will ever see combat.

They are torn about that, though. They spend their days training for war, and each of them wants to test his mettle (some more than others). But the longer they stay out of the fight, the longer they stay alive and whole.

"Part of me wants to get into it," said Staff Sgt. Tim Hogan, a 28-year-old squad leader from Eagle Point, Ore. "Because you don't come all the way out here to sit in the sun. But on the other hand, the longer I can avoid getting my guys shot at, the happier I am."

Hogan has a tattoo on each arm, one a Tasmanian Devil and the name of his daughter Brianna, the other a Winnie the Pooh with the name of his daughter Sydney.

The grunts have seen no Iraqis, but have seen plenty of Kurds, whom they call "Hadjis," after the turban-wearing character in the old "Johnny Quest" television cartoon. It's not meant as a slur. The paratroopers have gratefully eaten the warm bread that Kurdish soldiers and civilians have often dropped off for them.

The men eat dinner just before sundown. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are MREs - Meals Ready to Eat - hermetically sealed in pouches. They come with a water-activated heater to warm the main course, and a sweet desert. There are more than 30 variations and most are not half bad, but they get monotonous as the days go by.

When Habib disappears and darkness falls, most of those not on sentry duty go to sleep, because they are not supposed to use white light out in the field, and there isn't much they can do. Some turn on their red-lensed field flashlights and write in their journals.

"We've got to push ourselves every single day and to live so we can see our loved ones back home," Staff Sgt. Jay Pasion, a native of Guam, wrote in his recently. "I think about my wife, Silvia, and my one-year-old baby girl, Jasmine, every day. But I first have to take care of my soldiers and bring them back safe and alive. ... My will to survive makes me stronger. I have to survive so I can go home and see their faces again."

Then they put back on their snivel gear and try to stay warm as wind whips through their position and the temperature plummets.