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Mideast edition, Sunday, September 23, 2007

The missiles came streaking into Forward Operating Base Falcon around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. There were at least four of them, launched so closely you could hear the initial “swoosh” when they took off.

They came screaming in seconds later, exploding in quick succession. One hit a motor pool behind the chow hall, sending a tremendous shower of sparks high into the air.

Falcon’s automated warning system is designed to alert personnel to incoming mortar or rocket attacks. Its loud metallic alarm sounded.

“All clear! All clear!” a computer-generated voice announced over the loudspeaker.

Seconds later, the alarm sounded again. “Attention! Attention!” the voice said. “Incoming! Incoming!”

A few soldiers were jogging back to their barracks. Outside the barracks for Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, a soldier stopped and lit a cigarette.

“I thought they were supposed to sound the all-clear after the rockets hit, not before,” he said.

The soldier said that it was the first rocket attack to hit Falcon in a while. He said insurgents generally shoot them from the rooftops of a group of abandoned buildings not far from the camp.

Over at the Green Beans Coffee, the door was locked. The workers, who were from Indian and Sri Lanka, had evacuated. A handful of soldiers sat at outside tables, looking bored.

The soldier guarding the door played a football game on his Sony Personal Play Station. Traffic on his walkie-talkie confirmed that one rocket had hit the motor pool. No one on the FOB had been hurt.

The Green Beans workers came back in a few minutes later.

“Is it all clear?” one asked.

He looked relieved to hear that the all-clear had been sounded.

“You know, we come over here to make money,” he said. “But first, we must protect our lives.”

Look ma, no flashlightAfter 14 months in Iraq, you know how many steps are required to carry your bursting bladder from barracks to the bathroom. You know it’s a 127-step slog to the showers. You know where the big holes in the ground are and where the toe-stubbing pipes are.

You know because you have to. You know because after about 7 p.m., it’s pitch black outside. There are no streetlights, and few streets, for that matter. But you don’t use a flashlight because you don’t need one.

It isn’t exactly celestial navigation but if, for example, you are in Ramadi and you’re going to the Internet cafe, you head toward the blinking light in the sky, coming from a surveillance blimp. And if you’re going to the dining facility, head away from it.

Your night walking stride is confident and easy — while the new guy paws the air tentatively with his boots and a trembling beam quakes in his flashlight-holding hands.

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