First, they did away with the time-honored GI tradition of spit-shining combat boots when they switched from scuff-prone leather to suede.

Now, another proud military pastime is poised to become extinct — stirring fecal matter in a tub of flaming diesel fuel.

Instead of relying on smelly, fly-infested burn barrels slipped under plywood out-houses, U.S. Army troops in remote outposts are being issued special plastic bags for taking care of business.

The plastic sacks, called Waste Alleviation Gel, or WAG bags, contain a special compound that looks like cat litter and turns human waste into a Jell-O-like mass. The bags, which are biodegradable and seal like freezer bags, eliminate all nasty odors and flies. Best of all, the bags are simply tossed into the trash after use.

For burn barrel veterans, the development is serious cause for celebration.

“These bags are the MONEY!” said one enthusiastic first sergeant, who recalls his days of endless burn barrel stirring during the first Gulf War. “Finally, the Army got something right.”

Honey cacheThe lieutenant and the squad leader approached the suspicious box with caution. Their platoon had recently seized a remote farmhouse south of Baghdad and now they were searching the compound for weapons stashes.

The squad leader jerked the lid off the box. What he saw sent him into a panic.

Was it a bomb? Not quite.

“BEES!” yelled the squad leader. “RUN! BEES!” he yelled. The squad leader and lieutenant raced through the farmyard toward their command post, waving their arms madly like a scene from the Chris Farley movie “Tommy Boy.”

The suspicious box was a farmer’s beehive. It contained trays of honey and hundreds of the stinging insects.

The platoon started laughing as the officer and the squad leader caught their breath after making it to safety. The squad leader was known as being the type of soldier who rarely flinched at gunfire, much less ducked for cover. To see him running from a cloud of insects was too entertaining.

“I’m not afraid of bullets,” the squad leader said in exasperation. “But I am allergic to bees.”

Safe enough for lattesCommanders in Ramadi may be having a difficult time convincing the media that things are improving in the notorious western city, but at least they’ve convinced Green Beans.

A staple of both sprawling and sleepy forward operating bases throughout Iraq, the gourmet-coffee chain often is viewed as a sign that a combat base has “gone garrison.”

While that may not be entirely true of Camp Ramadi, commanders did manage recently to convince the chain that the camp itself was safe enough to set up shop. Roughly two months ago, war zone barristas began serving up lattes and frappes from a trailer storefront near the camp’s post exchange.

“It took me a good six months to get that little trailer out here,” said Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which recently redeployed to Germany.

“Everyone kept saying it was too dangerous, that Ramadi was Dodge City. I told them, ‘We haven’t been hit by indirect fire in Ramadi for months.’ ”

MacFarland’s brigade has since been replaced by the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, but the outgoing commander said that now Camp Ramadi has a Green Beans, the sky is the limit.

“I hope they bring in a Pizza Hut and a Burger King, too,” MacFarland said.

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