Portrait Of A Platoon

HOW A DOZEN SOLDIERS--OVERWORKED, UNDER FIRE, NERVOUS, PROUD--CHASE INSURGENTS AND TRY TO STAY ALIVE IN ONE OF BAGHDAD'S NASTIEST DISTRICTS

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JAMES NACHTWEY/VII FOR TIME

NIGHT WATCH: Sgt. Marquette Whiteside of the Survey Platoon, Headquarters Battery, a.k.a. the Tomb Raiders, on patrol in Baghdad

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NOV. 26: The toilet is driving Sky Schermerhorn crazy. It's bad enough that the bathroom at the base is shared by 10 G.I.s with varying standards of hygiene plus half a dozen Iraqis assigned to train with the platoon. What gets Schermerhorn is that no one else seems to mind that every 15 minutes the toilet stops up or floods, and when it does, no one else tends to it. Schermerhorn is the platoon's most garrulous soldier, a pudgy specialist with downcast eyes who joined the Army at 27 out of a desire to "protect freedom and democracy." Inside the two-story house where the Tomb Raiders live, Schermerhorn scrutinizes the habits of the other soldiers, looking for signs of lassitude. Today he decides to send a message about the toilet. YOUR MOTHER DOES NOT LIVE HERE, he scrawls on the bathroom's tile wall. THE F___ING TOILET IS BROKEN. "If a guy's unable to flush a toilet correctly," Schermerhorn says, "what is he going to miss when we're out there?"

As Schermerhorn speaks, Kamont and Winston recline on the secondhand couches that adorn the platoon's common area. They stare at a television hooked up to a portable DVD player that serves up a steady stream of war movies, sci fi, horror and porn. In front of the TV is a coffee table littered with picked-over ready-to-eat meals, Tootsie Rolls and water bottles filled with tobacco juice. Heat comes from three portable radiators. The platoon's house--the hooch, as the G.I.s call it--lies within the perimeter of the Azimiya palace compound, built by Saddam in the mid-1990s for his oldest son Uday. The portion of the palace not destroyed by U.S. missiles now functions as the 2nd Battalion's Tactical Operations Center. During the summer, the troops filled the swimming pool and built a sand volleyball court on the grounds. Lieut. Colonel William Rabena, the battalion's stout commanding officer, sleeps in an egg-shaped room dubbed the Love Shack, on a circular canopied bed.

After inspecting the bathroom, Schermerhorn writes his name on a tile wall in the common area that serves as a reservation sheet for the platoon's single Internet terminal. Most members of the platoon communicate daily with family members through email. The soldiers recently bought a webcam and connected it to the house laptop. The Tomb Raiders' hooch can be eerily antisocial, largely because today's G.I. can spend so much time in front of TV and computer screens. Schermerhorn spends the next hour instant messaging his girlfriend of three months, Nicole, a German he met while based in Giessen. The two speak three times a week on a satellite phone, and Schermerhorn tape-records 90-minute soliloquies for her when he is on guard duty. But he doesn't tell her everything. "I have to be cautious to preserve her sanity," he says. "If she knew what we did every day, she couldn't sleep at night."

--Family That Raids Together

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