NAJAF, Iraq – As the sandstorms (search) howl, bodies ache with cramps and fever and the hours creep by dull and empty. Soldiers daydream of home, or at least some action in Iraq (search). But for many, neither is likely any time soon.
War, the saying goes, is moments of sheer terror punctuating long stretches of utter boredom. In Iraq, the moments are becoming fewer and the stretches ever longer.
"Exciting," quips Army Spc. Dan Atkinson, of Watertown, Wisconsin, peering through choking dust at concertina wire, a few mud huts and acres of desert sand from his guardpost at the 82nd Airborne Division (search) compound outside this southern Iraq city.
Soldiers like him will be logging thousands of hours standing guard in coming months at far-flung locations across Iraq, mostly waiting and looking at nothing but sand or stars. Others will tick off incoming supplies, dole out dinner in mess tents and sort perhaps the most precious commodity, mail.
The highlight of guard duty, says the 22-year-old soldier and would-be artist, is when some local kids edge up to the wire to test out their few English words or try to sell Iraqi dinars.
Atkinson has time aplenty to think about what he will do with his accumulating pay (buy art supplies and bank the rest), where he will spend his post-Iraq vacation (in Germany or New Zealand) and how his sister is coping in high school at "that crazy age of 16."
Spc. Ruben Llanas Jr. counted up his first cousins, all 43 of them, during one bloc of free time. But even during his 12 hours on duty, Llanas' workload as a personnel specialist with the 82nd has slackened greatly.
"The hardest thing about Iraq? Having so much time to sit around," Llanas said.
Other mind games: Spc. Christopher Ducheneaux, an infantryman, likes to construct Utopias, taking a wall of democracy, a pillar of socialism, a foundation of traditional culture to make up perfect societies. He also thinks of having children with his wife of three months and the new computer she has just bought them.
"I believe our part in this overall endeavor has been completed. If so, I want to go home," said the Washington D.C. native, indulging in smoked mussels, red caviar and rosemary crackers recently sent by his wife.
Ducheneaux may soon have his wish. About 1,200 soldiers of the 82nd are expected to return to the United States in May. But for many other units, this is just the start of months of living sluggishly as the war evolves into security and peacekeeping operations along the lines of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.
During this phase, the dangers faced by U.S. troops are expected to diminish but the already harsh environment will become harsher. In Iraq's baking summer months, diseases spread more rampantly and venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders join the area's legions of flies.
Diarrhea, vomiting and flu-like fever, lasting 24 hours to several days, is already taking its toll on many at this compound. Medics say other units around the country are also being hit.
It's a Sunday and gusts of wind are again whipping up the surrounding desert to form stinging, brownish clouds. Dust penetrates every human orifice, and carpets the bare concrete floors of rundown barracks on which the soldiers sleep. When the wind shifts, the stench of human waste being burned in barrels by the compound wall assaults the senses.
On Sundays, Llanas, 24, remembers attending church and then going to his grandfather's house in San Antonio to play pool with two favorite cousins.
Others talk of what they'll do after retirement, what it means to be a Puerto Rican in American society and the A to Zs of sex. There's nostalgia over simple backyard picnics and regrets at having missed yet another birthday of a child.
But the desert blues at the 82nd, made up of regular army troops who have volunteered for parachute training, don't seem to include regret over having signed up for the military or been called for service in the Iraq War.
Ducheneaux, a Gulf War veteran, said he was enjoying life tending bar and falling in love when the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center occurred. He decided to return to the army.
"I'm hardly a flag-waving, drum-beating zealot, but that just crossed the line. I was pissed off," he said. "I figured that making a bad martini wasn't doing much for the war on terrorism."