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FALLUJAH, Iraq — “Hey, Babcock,” Sgt. Scott Palmer called out to a soldier exiting the dismal barracks. “Don’t die.”

Sgt. Beau Babcock, weighed down with body armor and an M-4 assault rifle, shrugged as he pushed back a plastic camouflage poncho taped over the doorway. “That’s the plan,” he said without pausing.

It’s easy to buy into the mystique surrounding the 82nd Airborne Division soldiers. They’re an inexplicable combination of low personal expectations and high individual motivation — an ethos of being unaffectedly casual about conditions and prospects, and outcomes unimaginable to the rest of America.

Not dying, of course, is the plan of every U.S. soldier in Iraq facing the random death of improvised explosive devices, or shoot-and-run small-arms fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades that have claimed on average one American life every other day since May 1. It’s a particularly good plan for the Fallujah area and its concentrated population of Baathist hard-liners and criminals.

No division, no unit, in the U.S. military is designed for this. But it can be said that no other division brings a more complete package to the mission: training, camaraderie and street toughness.

Basically, the 82nd is light infantry. Though it’s been 60 years since an airborne assault, the division was conceived as a lightly armed unit that could jump into the middle of enemy territory, surviving only with what the troops carried on their backs.

That minimalist tradition continues today.

Soldiers with, or attached to, Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the First Brigade at Forward Operating Base Mercury — east of Fallujah — have less than nothing.

Generators rarely work, which means long periods without air conditioning. A sign on the dining facility says, “No ice today. No water. No power, either.”

More often than not, there’s no water for the field showers. Soldiers choose between T-rations for breakfast and dinner and Meals, Ready to Eat for lunch. There are so many soldiers crammed into the handful of rough buildings on the former Iraqi military base that only a few hours after their latrines are cleaned, the stench from them could kill a camel.

Yet the 82nd can’t believe its good luck.

“We were told to expect a lot worse than we have,” said Babcock, of the 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.

“I expected to go dig my home for the next 15 days,” said Spc. Michael Mims, a Company B infantry scout.

“We were told it was going to be bad,” said Staff Sgt. James Campbell. “To show up to something as nice as this is great!”

There are a lot of reasons the 82nd soldiers are the way they are: They train harder than soldiers in most conventional units, with most specialties such as forward observers and scouts constantly in the field.

Because it’s quick to deploy and self-sufficient, the 82nd gets around.

The men at Mercury were all in Afghanistan for six months, home for six months, then here. Many soldiers, such as the 23-year-old Babcock, have been in the 82nd their entire military careers. Several senior noncommissioned officers, such as Staff Sgt. Michael Onstine, have done multiple heavy-duty deployments including Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan and now Iraq.

Yet rather than attracting the archetypal “hoo-ah soldier,” the 82nd seems to be composed of every personality type.

“At night, everyone talks,” Babcock said. “And you’ve heard the same story a million times. But when the new guy comes, you love to tell them all again.”

Nights at Mercury — between mortar attacks — are endless discussions of philosophy, wives, girlfriends, religion, good times, hot babes, sports and occasionally women in general. Daylight hours — between missions — seem to alternate between cleaning weapons, playing cards, then cleaning weapons some more.

These soldiers clean weapons with deep affection. There are, said Spc. David Villa, 20, a lot of soldiers who never think they’re going to have to use their weapons, “that it’s a really bad day when he has to fire his M-16.”

But no matter how tough the 82nd soldiers think they are, Villa added quickly that there’s always someone tougher.

His unit — all spun up in battle rattle — stormed in to guard a Special Forces safe house in Afghanistan, only to be greeted by Special Forces guys sitting in T-shirts soaking up rays.

Villa said: “They looked at us and said, ‘Chill out, man. This is a safe house.’ And we said, ‘Oh, yeah. We knew that stuff. We were just practicing.’”

Though some might deny it, most are here to try to complete themselves.

Babcock came and found self-discipline.

“Before, I didn’t have anything like that,” he said.

Villa went airborne to find the ragged edges of life: “I do it. That’s the part that blows my mind.”

Villa said he believes that his 82nd experience has given him the resolve and discipline to make it through medical school. He vows to frame his Class A uniform and put it in his dorm room.

“And I’m going to look at it when I’m doing that millionth paper and I’m going to say, ‘Focus on your work or you’ll be right back there,’” he said. “You’re only limited by your own determination.”

Ultimately, jumping out of airplanes and constant deployments and training break men down physically. At more than 6 feet 2 inches tall and 220 pounds of weight-sculpted muscle, Babcock is getting out because he’s already plagued by knee problems.

He talks about a 37-year-old airborne master sergeant “who looks like he’s 50.”

Is it worth it?

More than two dozen soldiers — killers, pacifists, lifers and guys counting the days ’til they get out — agreed on one thing. There is no other comparable experience in life. Not one said he’d wished he’d never come to the 82nd Airborne.

Not one.


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