Living conditions in Iraq for U.S. soldiers varies a great deal, depending on what unit they serve with and where it is located.
For some in the field, it’s still difficult to stay in touch with families back home. But here at Washington state’s Army Reserve Alpha Company, which flies Chinook helicopters, is a wired world.
This is all the more impressive when you realize that nothing was here -- not even tents or bathrooms -- when the company arrived last spring to claim this dusty corner of a former Iraqi air base.
Since then, the soldiers transformed their digs into an Internet hub. They have pitched in money for several different satellite dishes. Cables snake every which way from the dishes, across the graveled earth.
Inside the tents, personal computers are everywhere, sometimes hooked to stereo speakers. Soldiers are e-mailing; online shopping; and even use webcams to keep in touch with loved ones.
Some screensavers show off desert photos from their time in Iraq. Others feature snapshots from home.
Inside the “morale tent,” you can sit down in front of a big screen television that's hooked up to a satellite network. Soldiers can catch the latest on CNN, watch football bowl games, or take in a movie.
Phoning home is tougher. There is one phone that works through the government network to connect soldiers and families. A few soldiers also have sat phones that offer quick -- if somewhat expensive -- connections.
Chow comes from a field kitchen, a kind of mobile trailer that is capable of cooking up hot food but now serves meals that are trucked over from a large mess hall run by a contractor.
Yesterday, when I was headed through the line, I asked the cook, “hotdog or hamburger?’’
"I wouldn't know sir," said Sgt. Cathy Morgan. "I'm a vegetarian.”
I'd never really thought about the plight of vegetarians in the military so I went back after dinner to chat.
Morgan, 30, was born a Texan. Back in the states, she now works as a chef at the Olive Garden in Olympia. She says became a vegetarian six years ago, though she does eat some fish.
I asked her how she survived during the Alpha's Company tough stretch in April and early May, when the unit was in southern Iraq and had only the Army's prepackaged, Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE.
The MRE typically feature a big calorie meat entrée, and warn on the back of each package that you better eat hearty to sustain yourself in the field.
Morgan told me that the MRE have four vegetarian offerings, including burritos and Alfredo pasta. But she's not too keen on the vegetarian main dishes. Instead, she said she typically scrounged side dishes that other soldiers didn't want -- stuff like rice, beans and cheese, and packaged fruits.
The head cook, Robert O'Brien, is a 55-year-old gem stone cutter from Camano Island. In his spare time here, he even cuts stones here in Iraq.
O'Brien is a Vietnam vet. He was 19 then, working in communications.
He says the huge difference between this war and Vietnam is the support that soldiers get from home.
During the Vietnam era, O'Brien says he was told by the Army not to wear his uniform on leave back in the United States to avoid trouble. This time, when he returns home, O'Brien says will be wearing his uniform.
We heard, of course, this week of the tragic news in southern Iran with the thousands killed by the earthquake. A brief shudder of the earth may have caused more death than nine months of war here in Iraq, and all the bombs, rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire, mortar fire, improvised explosive devices and other weapons unleashed by Iraqi and coalition forces against one another.