A server cuts melon at a fresh fruit stand during dinner at a dining facility in Camp Taji, Iraq.

A server cuts melon at a fresh fruit stand during dinner at a dining facility in Camp Taji, Iraq. (Travis J. Tritten/S&S)

BAGHDAD — The bus quickly filled with a large group of riders, all of them chatting in African dialect. The driver, an Indian, was using broken English to direct a British passenger who already had one foot outside the bus door.

"It’s all good, mate," the Briton said before stepping out into the darkness and disappearing.

The driver cranked up the Hindi pop music on the radio and pulled off into the night.

It could have been a scene from a London or New York bus route. But it is also typical inside the wire of large and small U.S. military bases in Iraq.

On any given day, you might drop your dirty laundry with an Indian, hand your identification card to a Ugandan or eat a meal cooked by a Nepali.

The war has a huge appetite for manpower and contractors mine countries around the world for those willing to work in dusty Iraq.

Africa is a huge contributor to the work. But there are also Asians, Central and South Americans and Eastern Europeans.

The result is an odd cosmopolitan gathering in the heart of the most unlikely place — a country still reeling from years of insurgency and ethnic conflict.

The Cube

A typical game of Pass the Cube sounds like this: Pass the cube. Beep! Pass the cube. Beep! Pass the Cube. Beep! Pass the cube. Nrrrt!

The game resembles a Rubic’s Cube with tiles that light up randomly on each of its six sides. Players must quickly find the lighted tile, press it and pass the cube to the next player.

Two soldiers with 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division were playing the game while bumping along in a Stryker during a routine mission near the Mushada joint security station in Iraq. A computerized female voice urged them to pass the game piece as the tiles lighted in red, blue and white. After each pass, the speed increased. A missed tile triggered a buzzer and meant a loss.

"It messes with your mind," one of the soldiers said.

The battalion had been working for about 13 months out of Mushada along what once was the most bomb-laden stretches of road in Iraq. With the tempo of violence dropping, many are waiting for the days to wind down and for the long deployment to wrap up.

The soldiers spend hours per day in the belly of their Strykers, moving from place to place. There is often little to do but nap and play the simple game.

"It passes the time," said the second player, who was among a group returning from a day of digging for a weapons cache in a field.

New Year’s Day was just two days off, and from January, it was just two months before the soldiers would be returning to their base in Hawaii, to get back to the lives they left behind.

Pass the cube. Beep!

Fish Tales

Would you like scallops with your two lobster tails?

Even if you go with one lobster tail — or none at all — you’re likely to get a giant dollop of mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese farther down the dining facility line while eating at U.S. military bases in Iraq.

OK, even the potatoes or pasta might not be an option if it is lunchtime and you are at a joint security station, the tiny operations centers shared with Iraqi authorities. But you can have several pieces of cold French toast, a plateful of half-defrosted jalapeno poppers and two carrot cake bars.

Food is abundant, if not always appetizing, whether you’re at the massive dining complex at Camp Stryker or a tiny joint security station in Mushada. Soldiers can pile meal trays snowed under with cookies, granola bars, energy drinks and candy.

"I tell my soldiers to indulge for the first couple weeks then wean themselves off," said Capt. Cory Roberts, commanding officer of Company B, 1st Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division, who is deployed to Camp Stryker.

The food, especially the packaged snacks, can be useful for soldiers who spend long hours on missions outside the wire and often miss dining facility meal times. A stash of food is a typical find behind the seat of a Humvee.

Still, the amount of food can be overwhelming. Leon, an Iraqi interpreter working with the Army north of Baghdad, said the Iraq soldiers under Saddam Hussein were not nearly as lucky.

"We were given a cup of rice and a piece of bread to do all our exercises," he said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now