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Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurie Milligan of Lake City, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurie Milligan of Lake City, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurie Milligan of Lake City, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurie Milligan of Lake City, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
Cmdr. (Dr.) Thomas Jones of Springfield, Mo., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14.
Cmdr. (Dr.) Thomas Jones of Springfield, Mo., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
Petty Officer 2nd Class Chuck Cohn of Valrico, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Chuck Cohn of Valrico, Fla., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Martin of Moultrie, Ga., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Martin of Moultrie, Ga., and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

AL-ASAD, Iraq — There’s not much to do but work, sleep and sweat. The trip home is still months away, but which month is unclear.

For the reservists of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion FOURTEEN, most of whom left behind homes, families and jobs to serve in Iraq, the future is one big question mark. But the 70 or so assigned to the al-Asad air base manage a lot of smiles through the course of a 100-degree day.

Laughter is helping to keep them sane.

“If we didn’t have humor over here, this place would be too intense,” said Chief Petty Officer Mike Proctor, a 40-year-old father of four from Pelion, S.C.

“I’m not just talking about dealing with the bad guys. I’m talking about no family, no beer, no mail, no freedom to get in the car and go to Wal-Mart.”

The Seabees know they have it better than many troops.

Unlike some bases, al-Asad rarely receives mortar-fire from the other side of the fence. The Seabees aren’t asked to kill or capture anyone. The veteran unit (average age 41) is mostly made up of skilled tradesmen whose job in Iraq is construction.

But being on the vast desert plain of western Iraq is like being on another planet. The endless dirt horizon, the cloudless sky and the merciless sun force the Seabees to either cope or freak out.

Laughing helps them cope.

They joke about their age: “Instead of baby wipes we need more Ben-Gay.”

They joke about their jobs: A man on a forklift hauling oxygen tanks is told he “has some serious gas.”

They joke about basic needs: Message to home — send water first, guns next.

“We rib each other,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Chuck Cohn of Valrico, Fla. “We make jokes about serious stuff. Instead of grumbling, you make a joke about it.”

Laughter helps Seabees overcome challenges and control the chaos, according to Cmdr. Thomas Jones, a doctor from Springfield, Mo.

“It helps people stay flexible,” Jones said, “and keep a handle on their humanity.”

It doesn’t take a doctor to know that laughter is the best medicine.

As night falls the men sit on crates outside the Seabee headquarters, smoking cigars, drinking water and telling extremely off-color jokes about people such as children, nuns and Marines. No one is safe.

They laugh even when the jokes aren’t funny because it feels good, and they know the Marines are telling the same jokes about the Seabees, their brothers at arms.

A woman nicknamed “Sunshine,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Laurie Milligan of Lake City, Fla., said the women spend Sundays at their “Tent City” living area painting their toenails and playing music, talking and laughing. Just like home.

Twelve beds to a tent, each person with his or her own little area. You’ve got to laugh.

“Over here, I don’t think any of us take life for granted, seeing how these people live,” said Milligan, speaking of both the troops inside the fence and the Iraqis outside it.

Laughter, according to chaplain’s assistant Alberta Davis, a petty officer second class, helps make going home, whenever that will be, seem like not such a long time away.

Spending Fathers Day in Iraq doesn’t seem very funny to Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Martin of Moultrie, Ga. He has three kids and June 20 is also the birthday of his wife, Arla.

But Martin will nonetheless be hoping for something to smile about on Sunday.

“Sometimes,” he said, “a good laugh makes your day.”

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