NAJAF, Iraq - The battalion commander's order to Capt. Aaron Luck was short and simple: Find showers so the soldiers can bathe. I don't want to discuss it, I don't care how you do it, he said. Just find me some showers.
"And take that scrounge, Montcalm, with you," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes added. "Take him and those two tire thieves of his."
Montcalm is Richard Montcalm, the command sergeant major of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division. He is Hughes' counterpart for the enlisted ranks in the battalion, which calls itself No Slack. Montcalm is responsible largely for the soldiers' well-being.
Luck is the battalion supply officer, the man who gets food, fuel and ammo to the fighting units. He also has the authority to write checks, and Hughes authorized him to pay for the showers.
It has been at least 11 days since the soldiers here have showered. That's 11 days of driving through the dusty desert, of marching in the sun, of going on patrol and of sleeping outside.
The 2nd Battalion camped in the desert last week, and since Tuesday the men have been living in high squalor at an abandoned girls school in Najaf, a town 1,500 years old. At the school, most soldiers sleep on the tile floors of the classrooms with their clothes on, in anticipation of Iraqi missile strikes.
From there they've launched daily patrols through trash-strewn streets, working the crowds, raiding suspected fedayeen compounds, and kicking down doors in search of weapons.
The city lost power and water before the Americans attacked several days ago, and rubbish is everywhere. The black flies are so thick that the flies have flies. The air at camp, depending on wind direction, smells like body odor, burning trash, animal dung or human waste.
Until Thursday evening, when the rules were relaxed, soldiers also were required to wear heavy chemical suits every day and night since they left Kuwait last Monday. It's been warm here lately, and those suits get the sweat going with minimal exertion.
Flak jackets, helmets, ammunition and backpacks can add another 100 pounds. No wonder their brown Army T-shirts show white, crusty salt stains from the sweat.
The troops' water is in short supply, and is supposed to be reserved for drinking. Soldiers have been trying to combat the dirt by splashing their faces and hands with water and wiping their bodies with Baby Wipes.
But one could argue No Slack has other priorities, too, than securing showers, especially with daily raids on fedayeen weapons sites.
"I've been on some silly missions in my life, but this might be the silliest," said Luck, 32, of Richmond, Va. "I'm going into a combat zone, in an urban environment, looking for showers."
"And I'm going with the sergeant major, the second-most likely man in the brigade to get you killed."
(The first is the brigade commander, Col. Ben Hodges of Quincy, who despite his rank and protection has twice been attacked).
Montcalm, of Jacksonville, is a master of finding innovative solutions to sticky problems, of turning castoffs into treasures, and for good or ill he is fearless. His two "tire thieves," as the colonel put it, are Sgt. Shawn Scott and Spc. Patrick Scrogin, his bodyguard and driver.
In recent days they've helped Montcalm strip needed parts from abandoned and destroyed vehicles, recovered a variety of dropped military gear and turned a stainless steel stove from a wrecked mobile kitchen into a portable toilet.
They were heroes the day they brought in the toilet - a stainless steel seat beats a slit trench any day - and they would be heroes again if they could find showers, too.
Luck had gotten the order late Thursday night, and they struck out Friday morning. Since the local water tower was dry, they would first need to scout other areas of the city - a dicey prospect still - or get the tower full and working again.
No one in the truck spoke Arabic, so they brought with them a quick reference guide. Shower is "Hamaam." Luck practiced. "It's like "ha' and "ma'am.' At least that's what the linguist told me."
Just after the small convoy pulled out of the American compound, heading east, a call came over the radio: 2nd Battalion would be moving soon. Even if they found showers, the battalion would never have the time to run 500-some soldiers through them.
With neither soap nor water, the shower mission had been scrubbed.
"Well, if the shower mission is irrelevant, we should probably check out the water tower," Luck said.
Scrogin had a question. "Did they destroy the mines around it?"
Luck: "I don't know."
Montcalm shrugged. "Let's roll."[Last modified April 5, 2003, 02:02:48]