CAMP FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq -- The sun is fierce here and long hours of patrolling in the dust filled town of An Najaf, Iraq, leave the Marine encased by a transparent layer of powder. A sweat-drenched flak jacket and helmet drop to the floor with two numbing thuds, sending more dust particles shooting through the surrounding air. Another Marine finally rests inside a wind beaten green tent -- one graciously filled with the cool respite of air conditioning.
The day was long, like many others, but there are more to come. Lance Cpl. William E. Hartman, operations clerk, Command Element, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), returns from another arduous day providing security out in town. This one, like many others, the day began as the sun came up and ended long after the sky slowly bruised from warm orange to deep blue.
After shedding his gear, Hartman jumps in a cleansing shower and then goes to swallow a hot meal. His feet hurt and his body is tired. He knows it's all going to happen again tomorrow while he crawls in the rack, slips on his headphones and closes his mind to everything but the band The Grateful Dead now playing in his ears. This is an almost daily practice for him, and he uses it to get by.
It's just his way of winding down from a strenuous day and preparing for the next. Many other Marines of the MEU have their own unique means of relaxation and fun after work.
"They (The Grateful Dead) help me get to sleep at night, and most of their songs are happy. So, if I listen to them at night when I go to sleep I'll be thinking of a song in the morning and that makes the day better," Hartman said.
Most Marines use their leisure time to escape -- to catch a momentary break from their work. But they don’t do anything that gets in the way of their job. For most, it's just a way to keep from getting burnt out on the stress that can accompany one on a deployment.
Corporal Dave R. Ford, network administrator, Command Element, claims that he "definitely" spends more than half his spare time glued to a video game of some kind. He owns two different game systems out here, borrows another occasionally from the MEU Chaplain's office, and even has more games on his personal computer.
"It helps time pass easily and it helps me get through the deployment," Ford said.
However, he doesn't hoard the game play to himself. He'll drop his game to let in another player at any time. So, the environment around his rack can be solemn with his quiet concentration or filled with yells of jubilation where one Marine conquers another in one of the many games. He plays most types, everything from first person shooter, role-playing, strategic and different sports games.
"He'll play anything he can get his hands on," said Cpl. Sylvester McKinney, network administrator, Command Element, as he stepped in front of Ford's screen to see what he was playing.
Ford also points out that the games do more than just pass the time for him. He says they help cope with his helter skelter work schedule that often causes him to get sleep at infrequent intervals.
"The schedule I work doesn't allow me to keep a consistent sleep schedule. So, if you stay up and pass the time playing and go to sleep when you're tired it helps to keep a consistent schedule," Ford said.
Video games aren't for everyone though. Just across the tent from where Ford was busily punching his controller, Cpl. Matt Herring, network administrator, Command Element, was silently focused on one of the many books he has read during this deployment. He was reading under a warm, incandescent glow complementary to the cool blue emitted by Ford's screen.
"If I can find a good book, I'll read it," Herring said. He estimates that he's read more than 10 during this deployment.
Mostly, the books come from a floating library that circulates the MEU in a hand-me-down system.
"Once I read them, then it makes no sense to let them sit around. I give them to other people who want to read them," Herring said. "It doesn't really matter to me where they go once I've read them."
Ford added that he acquires many of the video games he plays the same way. But a central location for this swapping of entertainment comes from the MEU Chaplain's office where many hovering books, movies and games rest momentarily before landing in the hands of another person seeking their refuge.
Lance Cpl. Sinclair L. Harrell, administrative clerk, Command Element, finds sanctuary in the plethora of movies surprisingly available to the Marines and sailors deployed with the MEU.
"It kind of helps escape the day and enjoy someplace else for a while," he said.
His time off is divided between resting on his rack watching movies with his six-inch screen personal DVD player on his chest and many hours in the gym. He works out almost 10 hours a week, but it's just to be in better shape by the time he gets home. It's not to look better for his wife who, nonetheless, is "still going to make me take out the garbage."
The asylum he seeks from the monotony of a daily routine is mostly speckled with dreams of spending time with his daughter, who was born while he was in boot camp. And he jokes that he's been gone so much that she won't be able to recognize him.
Instead of the more obvious thoughts of home, one of the peculiar aspects of the Marine Corps and deployments are the unordinary hours one might work. For instance guard duty is most oftentimes different from the normal hours a civilian works during daylight.
The Noncommissioned Officers of 81mm Mortar Platoon, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th MEU (SOC), are standing guard here and are "lucky if we get a day a week off," said Sgt. Justin D. Sperry, squad leader, 81mm Plt. Their weekly schedule consists of a 24-hour shift as sergeant of the guard, another 24 hours on the quick reaction force, then eight hours at the FOB's entry control point and then usually three days where they have two four-hour shifts on a guard tower. That means eighty-hour workweeks are a normal occurrence.
"See this dent in my rack?" rhetorically asked Cpl. Joseph M. Pervsich, mortarman, 81mm Plt., referring to how he spends his time off.
But they still have their entertainment as well. They even pooled together money to buy a TV for their tent from the soldiers the MEU relieved. Incredibly, one TV among the tent full of men doesn't create any problems with deciding what to watch. They trickle in at such individual and infrequent rates that no one is hardly in the tent together at any one time.
"Whoever is standing here just puts something in and we just walk in at sometime and watch," said Cpl. Michael S. Bachicha, mortarman, 81mm Plt. "It's on all the time with everybody in and out all the time."
The tent is dark but for the glow of a comedian creating chuckles around the few Marines in the tent that are actually awake. When they're not watching movies or comedians, the Marines play a lot of football video games together.
"Except for people like me that don't touch the thing because I can't play," Sperry said making fun of the fact that he always seems to lose when he plays.
Although, not everybody can win, there's one place on the FOB that everyone seems to be able to handle. Recently, the Marines of the MEU constructed an Internet Café. Within days of it opening Marines wait anxiously in line for a chance to talk to friends and loved ones around the world on Web Cameras, and they sigh reluctantly when their number is called and their turn is up.
Marines spend their half hour on the Internet to catch up on current events or just to find out what's going on back home.
"Since it's getting close to the holidays people feel obligated to contact home," said Lance Cpl. Fermin Treto, supply clerk, Command Element, on his way out the door when his shift was up.
Sergeant Luis D. Almaguer, police sergeant, Command Element, spent a lot of time helping to put the Internet Café up and -- as if he can't get away -- was surfing the web there himself. He estimates that more than 150 Marines and sailors use the 20 different computers a day.
"It's like your own little bubble. In that 30 minutes you feel like you're not at work anymore," Almaguer said.
All the Marines of the MEU don't spend their spare time glued to a chair and fixated on a screen of some kind. Intelligence Marines of the Command Element are just one unit that band together to compete in various sports tournaments around the FOB.
"It helps us take our minds off the daily schedule and it builds camaraderie and teamwork," said 1st Lt. Daniel R. Myers, reconnaissance and surveillance coordinator, Command Element.
Fifteen or so Marines from Intel were up late in the evening one night for a volleyball tournament and are ready and signed up for a flag football tournament coming soon.
"It gives the Marines a chance to do something that isn't so serious. It ultimately refreshes them so they can focus even better on their work," Myers said.
Groups of Marines and sailors can be seen scattered all over the FOB playing football, frisbee, soccer, basketball, volleyball or just running together. Organized tournaments, however, are the product of one man on base. Chief William C. Hammond, religious programs specialist, Command Element, arranges a gamut of different tournaments just to lift everyone's spirits.
"I like to bring some kind of enjoyment to them," Hammond said.
He has all kinds of tournaments planned. Everything from horseshoes, spades to a strongest man and woman competition.
The volleyball tournament was the first experiment of such kinds of organized revelry.
"It really paid off. There are around 50 people out there most of the night," Hammond said.
Myers mentioned how he heard his Marines talking about it for days afterward saying "it was one of the more fun things they've done out here."
It's Hammond's own drive to provide fun to Marines and sailors of the MEU that motivates him to pack a schedule full of interesting events.
"It makes me feel better to give them something to do. Boredom can sometimes make people complacent," he said.
The chapel is also stockpiled with ways for Marines to "vent without venting too much," he added.
With more than a thousand books, movies and CD's that anybody can check out, the chapel is a common ground for Marines to come searching for reprieve. That's not even counting the abundance of board games and the estimated 2,000 pounds of care packages handed out.
So, it's a difficult task to find a Marine or sailor strolling around the FOB without anything to occupy him or herself. It's definitely harder to find than anything to do.