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Dispatch from the 101st

With the lights on, troops feel at home

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003


HILLAH, Iraq -- After weeks in the desert, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division on Tuesday scored their sweetest digs since they left home: the University of Babylon.

Inside, they found mahogany doors, polished granite floors and comfy leather couches. Better still, running water and electricity.

The campus sits along the Euphrates River, just south of the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. The dusty desert brown that defines most of southern Iraq is tempered a bit by the green of date palms and wheat fields outside of town.

The courtyard features a large planter of roses and white and yellow daisies. Faculty live in townhomes with little yards and gardens. They appear to have fled hastily, leaving bread on the counters and suitcases in the bedrooms. The chemistry department has a well-stocked lab and a large library.

As soon as the soldiers arrived, the engineers found the generator, added fuel oil, and hit the switch.

Lights. Ceiling fans. Some rooms, including the boardroom where the battalion set up its command post, even have air conditioning.

"I almost feel guilty," said Lt. Troy Fisher, 24, of Odessa, Texas, a platoon leader in B Company.

A wartime infantry crashes where it can. The criteria for an overnight camp are simple: It should be easily defended, with room for the battalion's soldiers, vehicles, command post and a trench latrine.

If outdoors, the encampment should have an earthen berm or other barriers, with a good range to fire in all directions.

If indoors, the ideal camp is a compound with thick, high walls, only a couple of entrances, a good rooftop view for the snipers and a shortage of vermin.

The 2nd Battalion began last week at a decrepit, abandoned girls' schools in Najaf, then moved to an empty Iraqi army barracks on the north side of town. Neither had electricity, but the barracks did have some running water.

The battalion arrived in Hillah, destroying thousands of Iraqi munitions, including rocket-propelled grenades, bullets, mines and hand grenades. Soldiers also found a huge government warehouse of food that will be distributed soon to locals.

About half the 700-man battalion stayed at the warehouse, in the dark, with whatever critters a giant food warehouse attracts.

The rest stayed at the university, scattered among three new buildings around a courtyard. The headquarters company took the chemistry building, while the A and B rifle companies each took a classroom building.

"Makes me nervous," Sgt. 1st Class Jim Perdue, the scout platoon leader, grumbled as his men lay beneath a twirling ceiling fan. "We have all these lights, and people outside can see us. I prefer sandbags and barriers."

His view was in the distinct minority. Most enjoyed the simple pleasure of electricity, playing cards and watching We Were Soldiers in a lecture hall. The buzz of clippers could be heard all around as they took turns shaving each other's heads.

After his haircut, Maj. Pete Rooks, the battalion second in command, found a spot in the office of the dean of chemistry. It has a leather couch and love seat, and a fine, red Persian rug.

Rooks is a well-born young man, not one to gawk at the finer things. But even he couldn't help but be impressed.

"Most excellent," said Rooks, who says hi to his parents in Satellite Beach. He cast around the command post. "I would like some fresh squeezed orange juice. Any of that? Do we have any fresh squeezed orange juice?"

Sadly, no. But some of the buildings were equipped with toilets that are simply holes in the floor. There aren't any showers or working sinks, and the water pressure is low.

But Tuesday night, with the lights on, the men rejoiced. They would join their colleagues at the warehouse complex the next night, but now it was time to enjoy what they had.

"This is four-star," said Sgt. Troy Brown, 33, of Splendora, Texas, as he played cards with friends. "You got a toilet that flushes. And at least you're inside."

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