KBR worker Ramon Bates spots Cpl. Brian Moucha of California at the gym at Camp Al Qaim in western Iraq.

KBR worker Ramon Bates spots Cpl. Brian Moucha of California at the gym at Camp Al Qaim in western Iraq. (Andrew Tilghman / S&S)

Soldiers arrived a few months ago at a forward operating base in Husaybah, Iraq — converted from a battle-scarred youth center — to learn they had no phones and no chow hall.

But they did have wireless Internet access.

“It was kind of strange because I couldn’t take a shower, but we had wireless Internet,” said 2nd Lt. Ben Cunningham, a Florida native on his first deployment to Iraq.

A group of Marines from the Civil Affairs Group contracted with a local Iraqi firm earlier this year to provide the wireless service. The Marines from the California-based 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment simply pooled money and renewed the service for an additional six months.

Some troops, however, didn’t think to pack the needed computer equipment. Lance Cpl. Kurt Feirick is in Iraq for his third time and recalls postings where mortar fire was more common than running water.

“I wasn’t really expecting to have wireless Internet. Our other two trips to Iraq were pretty different,” said Feirick, a Michigan native.

Smugglers’ plans go up in smokeOne of the perks of being a U.S. Marine stationed near the Syrian border?

Free cigarettes.

A recent border interdiction operation designed to prevent illegal cross-border trade came across several men leading a group of donkeys strapped with dozens of cartons of cigarettes.

“We shot the donkeys and took the cigarettes,” said a U.S. Marine captain.

The smugglers themselves ran when they saw the Marines and weren’t caught.

The company noncommissioned officers passed out the cigarettes to young Marines living in nearby battle positions.

“They should keep an eye out for some alcohol next time,” one Marine remarked.

Personal help for physical fitnessFor soldiers and Marines who spend a lot of time at a desk, the Army is offering personal trainers to help them stay in shape.

As life at many forward operating bases becomes more routine, Morale, Welfare and Recreation is not only running gyms for troops downrange, but offering civilian workers to help with personal training.

“Most guys just come in here and say ‘How do I get bigger?’ That’s their first question,” said 27-year-old Ramon Bates, an Oklahoma native and KBR contract worker who works at the gym at Camp Al Qaim.

Bates is one of several hundred KBR workers spread across the U.S. bases in Iraq, offering help with weightlifting, designing workout schedules or advising troops on their diet. It’s a luxury limited to troops based on large camps and largely unavailable to troops who are at smaller patrol bases where there may be little more than a single weight bench and a few barbells.

Bates works with dozens of troops who hope to get in good shape during their stay in Iraq. For many troops, the gym is an escape from the day-to-day tedium of Iraq.

“This place is like a getaway for them. I think we are giving them a piece of home,” Bates said.

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