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Mideast edition, Tuesday, May 15, 2007

CAMP RAMADI, Iraq

First Lt. Saul Merejo remembers life without running water, walking a mile or two with tubs to lug enough from the nearby well to wash, cook, clean.

Merejo, 32, grew up in the Dominican Republic. His house was plywood, built on pillars and with a shotgun airway so the breeze could surround and blow through.

One of his first memories is waking up in that hut and finding his legs tied to the bed. He looked up to see the roof fly off. He later realized his family had tied him down so the hurricane beating the island wouldn’t carry him away.

Now Merejo is one small part of the U.S. military’s efforts to bring running water, electricity, sewage pumps and other infrastructure to Ramadi. Every night, military officers throughout the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division send in their updates on local projects in the city and surrounding areas. Merejo’s job is to track that progress and help prepare the next morning’s brief for the brigade commander.

It’s paper-shuffling, Merejo agrees. But the office work reaches far beyond his desk.

“For me, coming to this country, it brings back memories,” he said. “The same problems that are happening here, I had to endure. I know because of some of the stuff I went through. I lived it. I feel a lot of déjà vu.”

But, Merejo is quick to point out, he and his family didn’t have to endure a war.

When he was 12, Merejo and his family moved to Boston, a freezing cold transition into American life. He was put into the fourth grade and didn’t speak any English. The teasing from other students prompted him to learn, because he wanted to know what they said.

The day after his 20th birthday he enlisted in the Army. His mother had told him the American military once helped during a rebellion in his home country, and he liked that idea. He also liked the idea that the Army trained soldiers for civilian life as well. As a soldier, Merejo worked as an orthopedic technician and earned a four-year nursing degree.

In 2003, Merejo became a U.S. citizen, in part so he could become an officer.

His tour in Ramadi is his first in Iraq. He finds Camp Ramadi, with its rocky streets and sand-filled skies, perfectly fine.

“There’s running water here,” he says. “Flush toilets.”

As Merejo talked, he polished off his surf-and-turf dinner at the camp’s main chow hall. When asked if he gets tired of hearing others complain about the living conditions in Iraq, he paused.

“Not as much,” he said. “It depends. When soldiers complain, sometimes they just need to be heard. You give them that time and listen, and they’ll feel better.”

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