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CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq

War zone or not, it’s March Madness.

The battle lines are drawn. Game on for soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard.

The brackets have been drawn up and distributed and the fever of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is sweeping through the battalion, said Sgt. Thomas Sauvageau, a battalion paralegal who’s sort of running the show.

“It’s all been pretty easy,” he said.

The soldiers will follow the tourney’s progress via the Internet and are gearing up to watch showdowns broadcast on AFN.

“There’s no money involved, of course,” Sauvageau said with a smile. “That would be highly illegal.”

There are other motivators.

“It’s about pride, and bragging rights,” the 22-year-old soldier said.

And an opportunity to discuss something other than the war, their jobs and the fact that the battalion faces a 100-plus day extension in country, said Sgt. Marko Pedisic, 21, an avid sports fan.

They should have been heading home in a few days.

“We were really hoping not to be in country for the tournament,” Pedisic said. “That’s not gonna happen. So this gives us something to talk about at chow. We’re sick of taking about work and missions and such.”

They do the same for the National Football League, participate in fantasy football, and intend to get in on the fantasy baseball, he said.

Of course, many other troops at the base said they haven’t found the time to find a bracket and fill it out.

Different gamblingLook out, PlayStation and Xbox. Some young Marines seem to have found a new form of entertainment: playing the stocks.

Cpl. Juan Dominguez, 21, and about seven other Marines from the Heavy Equipment Operations Platoon of Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 at Camp Taqaddum spend much of their free time researching the stock market.

“It’s fun,” said the California native with a year-and-a-half of active-duty service. “OK, we still play Xbox — nothing compares to video games — but this is really fun for us. It’s amusing to watch our money increase.”

It’s a new wave in entertainment for many, he said. And it’s become a bit of a competition within his platoon.

He’s up about $1,500 after starting to invest in stocks a little more than two months ago, and has been alternating in first and second place with another member of his platoon — one he taught to play the stocks, he said, laughing at the irony.

Not only do the Marines get a kick out of watching their invested money rise (for the most part — some experienced a bit of bad luck and bailed), but they enjoy learning the market, too, he said.

“I like researching the trends and investing in those showing an ‘up’ trend,” Dominguez said.

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