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IN THE IRAQI DESERT — Weather foul and bizarre greeted the troops from 11th Aviation Regiment as they arrived at their new home in central Iraq.

They rolled into the base Monday morning, exhausted from their 69-hour journey from Camp Udairi, Kuwait, under cool, cloudy skies. But before any tents could be erected, the pleasant morning gave way to a raging sandstorm.

Some took refuge in their trucks, but most sat on cots in the desert as the storm swirled around them.

By late afternoon, the winds had subsided enough to put up shelter. But the gale started again Tuesday, eventually turning into a red storm.

The sand hung thick in the air with the sun overhead. It turned a bright orange that looked like the most vivid of sunsets — except the sun wasn’t scheduled to go down for another two hours.

Soon the orange gave way to a dusty, blood-red darkness unlike anything the soldiers had seen.

“It was really weird,” said Spc. Juan Quintana, 26, a 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment soldier from Lovington, N.M. “It looked like Mars.”

Lightning started crashing overhead, and a pattering started on the tent roofs.

Raindrops? No, dirt drops.

Those who dared to walk even a few feet through the crimson gloom came inside with mud-spattered faces and clothes. All of which had soldiers longing for the camp in Kuwait they had complained about only a week earlier.

“I hated Udairi,” said one 2-6 Cavalry officer, “but I hate this place worse.”

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