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Lance Cpl. Scott Baker, a truck company reservist from Tarentum, Penn., attached to the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, stands inside a replicated Ishtar Gate — the original is in Berlin — the entrance to Babylon. He's seen the ruins of Babylon twice.
Lance Cpl. Scott Baker, a truck company reservist from Tarentum, Penn., attached to the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, stands inside a replicated Ishtar Gate — the original is in Berlin — the entrance to Babylon. He's seen the ruins of Babylon twice. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

CAMP BABYLON, Iraq — It’s not a resort, and uniforms and weapons are still required, but for some servicemembers in southern Iraq, a day of rest at Camp Babylon in Hilla is a welcome reprieve from the monotony of life in Iraq.

“It’s a break; you come over here and learn about history,” said Marine Sgt. Michael Meisenhalder, with the third platoon of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based in nearby Diwaniyah.

“Everybody was looking forward to coming over here.”

Camp Babylon, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters, has some rare finds for a military camp in the region: a pool, good chow, washers and dryers, one of Saddam Hussein’s grandiose palaces and the ruins of Babylon, the ancient city of biblical fame, conquered repeatedly through history.

The ruins aren’t much, and Saddam’s attempt at reconstruction might make an archaeologist cringe, but the mystique of the place is still attractive.

“I remember reading about this at school,” said Lance Cpl. Jeromy Pilon, from Spokane, Wash.

Lance Cpl. Gibson Mitton, with the battalion weapons platoon, said the day was a break from the rigid schedule most infantry Marines have followed since combat action ended in Iraq. Patrol, guard, patrol.

“It’s getting out of the swing of things, getting away from the compound,” he said.

Army Sgt. Thomas Coleman, a New York Army National Guardsman with the 442 Military Police from Newburgh, N.Y., was on a break from life at Camp Smitty in Samawah, Iraq.

“I think this is probably the biggest highlight of my tour,” he said.

He visited the ruins and the bazaar outside the gate, then planned to head over to the pool.

The bazaar was like others he’s seen in Iraq, but much more orderly.

“It’s the same stuff as others, but it’s in a more controlled environment.” Coleman explained.

“This is better [than other camps in Iraq], it’s a historical place,” he added. “You might as well get some historical value out of it.”

Down time in Iraq

CAMP BABYLON, Iraq — There’s a lot to miss in a hot and dusty camp in southern Iraq. And there’s a lot to think about.

The fragrant aroma of a women’s perfume.

Driving nice cars. Listening to the latest songs. Watching the latest movies.

“I saw the top 10 songs in Rolling Stone, and I didn’t know any of them,” said Lance Cpl. Christopher Awad, of the 6th Communications Battalion from Brooklyn, N.Y., and currently in Iraq.

“I’m lost.”

Lance Cpl. Justin Naimoli, from Plainview, N.Y., a member of the same squadron, misses food — “Italian food,” he says — and toilet bowls and showers.

The Marines, along with 150,000 other U.S. servicemembers still working in and around Iraq, have been away from home longer than most sports seasons. They wonder who won hockey’s Stanley Cup and what are the latest public scandals.

In the desert, mail comes slowly and CDs stop working after a few playings, a product of heat and the ever-present sand.

It’s hard to keep a grip on what’s going on back home, and places seem more dismal by the hour. Time allows a lot of reflection on what’s not there.

“I miss being clean when I want to wear good clothes,” said Cpl. Danny Lambouths Jr. of the 1st Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Other things the Muskegon, Mich., native misses: “Cold water at your leisure, eating what you want, not having to eat an MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) or T-Rats (Troop Rations).”

Lance Cpl. Tyrone Singleton Jr. from Cleveland and a member of the same company, misses little things Americans take for granted: “Being able to flush a toilet.”

Awad, from Marlboro, N.J., misses popular culture — episodes of “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” and the latest movies.

“I miss music the most,” he laments. And the beach. “There’s too much sand and not enough beach.”

He can’t wait to get home to spend his hard-earned combat cash.

There are also the nontangibles left behind. Petty Officer Third Class Kevin Warnock, a Navy corpsman, from Cleveland, misses his dog and his civilian job as a paramedic. His battalion of reservists left behind jobs, college and loved ones.

Singleton, like many servicemembers, misses his family the most. He hasn’t seen his 2-year-old daughter since Jan 2.

“I miss my daughter,” Singleton said. “I talk to her maybe once or twice a month. All she says is ‘Miss you daddy.’ We were so close.”

Despite the separation and disconnection, the Marines say they have learned from the experience being in Iraq.

“It makes you appreciate things differently,” Singleton said.

“Money comes and goes,” Awad said, but somethings will last forever. Among them, he said: “The experience of being a veteran of a foreign war.”

— Juliana Gittler

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