They call themselves gypsies, the men of Bravo Company.
Right now, the 140 American soldiers are living out of their Stryker infantry carriers, part of a force assisting a U.S. Marine offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah by blocking any insurgent movement near a canal to the northeast. They sleep up to six to a vehicle, crammed into a metal shell with hatches and only narrow windows in the "Hellhole" — the driver's compartment.
Living in these machines is like living in a can. In the morning, the soldiers pop their heads out of the hatches like moles emerging from the earth. By day, they wait, patrol, scan compounds with the sights of their rifles and engage in firefights with insurgents.
Such is U.S. Army life in a theater of war, a lot of the time. But this company from the 5th Stryker Brigade has been on the move more than most since it deployed in Afghanistan in July, and they joke about it. They are the "Bedouin Company" — after the Arab desert nomads — or the "Bravo Bastards."
"We haven't had a home, we've been living out of our bags forever, getting mail sporadically when we can get it," said Sgt. Joshua Michael Rodriguez, a Las Vegas resident and senior medic with Bravo Company of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Most U.S. Army units settle in one area of Afghanistan, patrolling and getting to know their turf and its residents, friendly or not. But Rodriguez and his company brethren have shuttled from one spot to the next, shifting assignments until the brigade settled on its current job of keeping the roads open in southern regions where the Taliban are strong.
They started at a base in the mountainous terrain of Zabul province, where children sometimes lobbed rocks at their Strykers, and once even landed a tomato on a soldier's face. The hostility turned deadly on Sept. 24, when a roadside bomb tore through a Stryker, killing three soldiers.
Late last year, an unexpected order came to pack up and move south to Kandahar Air Field, the main military base in the region. They used that as a refitting base before heading out for short-term missions at assorted camps and combat outposts — Ramrod, Frontenec, and Jelawur — to support "sister" battalions in their brigade.
One time in Kandahar, they removed their vehicles' "birdcages" — slat armor encasing Strykers that is designed to block rocket-propelled grenades — so they could operate on the narrow roads of the Arghandab river valley, where they helped the hard-hit 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment.
In keeping with the Native American symbolism of its 2nd Infantry Division, the battalion commemorates its dead in a tepee with shelves bearing framed photographs of slain soldiers. Someone lights candles there every night.
Bravo Company liked Frontenec, where the leadership made the newcomers feel at home.
The battalion commander "would come by and say thank you for helping us out," said Spc. Charles Henderson, 23, of Wake Forest, North Carolina. "The chaplain would come down and sit with some of us and just talk to us."
But the company didn't like a nearby schoolhouse where they stayed in shifts. They also had to deal with ill-disciplined Afghan troops, who smoked hashish, stole knives and other gear from the Americans. One even stole a MP3 player from one American soldier and tried to sell it to another.
Bravo Company didn't have a fixed address during this period of several months. The biggest downer was the lack of mail, a morale-booster for any soldier far from home. The only regular packages they received were from American church groups supporting the troops.
Things started to stabilize for the company just after Christmas when they headed to Forward Operating Base Tombstone in Helmand province. They spent January patrolling a highway and using concertina wire to block culverts where insurgents hid roadside bombs.
Even at Tombstone, they were warned.
"Once we got there, they told us, 'We're going to move again, so don't get too comfortable,"' Rodriguez said.
One good thing about being on the move, the men confide, is that they can loosen up when the battalion leaders aren't always around. They occasionally wore civilian sweat shirts or caps, didn't shave every day, and rolled up their sleeves or didn't tuck combat fatigues into boots. These small violations of military code made them feel better. They eased the stress, somehow.
Humor, a lot of it morbid, also helped. They kid each other about losing legs in battle. "Sweet, I'm going to get some bionic legs," one response might go. On Saturday, a Bravo Company sniper was shot in the hand. That night, men joked about how he was probably coasting high on morphine.
"The last few months have been a lot of unknowns," said Spc. Zachary Barbadillo of Waialua, Hawaii.
"This mission is another unknown," Rodriguez said. "How long are we going to be here? I don't know."
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