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The other side of the soldier

They install bright red tanks for drinking water and silver transformers for a village and school. They fill potholes to keep a dirt road passable through the rainy season, and plan to revive miles of dormant irrigation canals and restore the lan...

They install bright red tanks for drinking water and silver transformers for a village and school.

They fill potholes to keep a dirt road passable through the rainy season, and plan to revive miles of dormant irrigation canals and restore the land.

They teach first aid.

And they sit in the tents of wandering Bedouins, helping them understand a new Iraq.

Some are Minnesota National Guard members, and some of those 2,600 are Northlanders. They are part of the 34th Infantry Division, which is known as the Red Bulls.

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Deployed last spring, they could come home in March.

And because they are U.S. soldiers on duty in Iraq, they don't go anywhere without their weapons, even if it's a trip to the bathroom. All travel "outside the wire" -- off base -- is done in protective convoys. They are drivers, gunners, mechanics, nurses, dentists and legal experts. Their work involves escorting supply convoys or supporting the military occupation. Some are placed in harm's way; others don't leave base.

The soldiers live in Tallil, a former Iraqi airbase near the southern city of Nasiriyah. The post is at a crossroads for supplies coming from Kuwait to Baghdad and other points.

They are a part of modern history. But echoes of the Biblical past are near: The base includes the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.

Mud and gas

Staff Sgt. Tracy French is from Aurora and usually works as a nurse in Virginia.

As part of a medical company, one of her duties is teaching first aid to Iraqis.

Cultural belief bars Iraqi men and women from attending together these weekly classes, which teaches members how to treat simple injuries and medical conditions. The soldiers hold men-only and women-only sessions.

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French said she came to Iraq to help care for people.

"With this experience, we have had a positive impact with the public," she said. "It's been enlightening to interact with them and learn their different ways of treatment."

The Iraqis sometimes offer their own home remedies, using mud on burns to soothe them, or gasoline on cuts to make them heal more quickly.

The women have taught Sgt. Cassandra Houston some lessons, too, she said.

"I may give them a better look at Americans," Houston said. "They have given to me the understanding that I do not need to have a lot of stuff to be happy."

Hussein's base

Tallil airbase was the home of Saddam Hussein's air force. It is filled with an international contingent of soldiers and contractors. Hussein's base encompassed the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, with its renowned ziggurat, a 4,600-year-old temple.

Nearby Nasiriyah is home to 500,000. The people are mostly ethnic Shiites, who comprise the majority of Iraqis.

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The city lies on the Euphrates River, about 175 miles southeast of Baghdad. It is a flat place where barley, dates and wheat grow. Lush vegetation lines both sides of the river for about 100 meters. Beyond that, the land is parched. It doesn't rain from April to October, and temperatures sometimes soar to 120 degrees.

The airbase's runways were destroyed by U.S. forces at the end of the first Gulf War, and Nasiriyah marked the farthest advancement of U.S. troops during that war.

During the 2003 invasion, the city was the scene of Iraqi resistance, including the ambush of a U.S. convoy and abduction and rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

But today, things have quieted down. Security in the province is administered by the Iraqi government, one of the few examples of local control. Much of the ongoing violence takes place elsewhere.

On base, soldiers can work out at a gym or eat at Burger King. Off base, they have to wear body armor. And every soldier and vehicle leaving base is subject to a three- to four-page inspection list.

Daily duties

For many Minnesota National Guard soldiers, the occupation of Iraq is a monotonous one.

Sgt. Holly Norick issues and tracks supplies -- Hummers, pencils, socks, T-shirts -- for her unit. Spec. Christina Ylatupa helps her. Both women are from Duluth.

Their typical day is one of meetings and trips to and from an on-base warehouse. They don't often leave base.

"It's like moving from the city to the country; you get used to it," said Norick, who worked at the Duluth Armory before her deployment. "You do your job. You count the days."

Recreation is sparse. Tours are offered of the Great Ziggurat or Abraham's home.

"Movies, go to the gym," Ylatupa said. "There's not a lot here. We do what we can."

Both soldiers have been home for two-week visits. They expect to return for good this spring.

When they do, Norick looks forward to sitting on the couch in her new home off the Two Harbors expressway with her three daughters, watching TV. Ylatupa, who grew up in Silver Bay and helps care for the elderly and her sister's two daughters in Duluth, said she misses green grass and snow.

Quiet province

Much of the information for this story was provided by Staff Sgt. Bill Snellman, a Lakeside neighborhood resident and public affairs officer for the 1st Combat Brigade of the 34th Division. For security reasons, some information, such as the numbers and locations of Northland troops, wasn't released.

Forty Minnesotans have died in Iraq, including Spec. Daniel McConnell of Duluth and Corp. Levi Angell of Cloquet. Seventy-four coalition troops have been killed in Dhi Qar province, where Nasiriyah and Tallil are located, according to

icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks casualties.

There is tension in the region.

Fundamentalists have threatened to damage antiquities at Ur, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, according to a New York Times story.

In July, a just-deployed Cedarburg, Wis., soldier was killed when his convoy hit a roadside bomb near Nasiriyah. Another soldier was wounded in that attack.

Three years ago, U.S. troops in Tallil were accused of abusing a former Baath Party official suspected of having a part in Lynch's capture. The man died while in a Marine-run detention center at Camp Adder, which is part of the Tallil complex. Eight men were charged by military prosecutors; two were convicted of lesser charges.

Bedouins

Snellman, a chemical engineer back in the U.S., has worked with the Bedouin, a nomadic people.

Though often overlooked in Iraq's fractured ethnic makeup, the Bedouin make up about 10 percent of the population, he said. They herd sheep and camels. Some are extremely wealthy.

Soldiers explain to them how the new Iraq will affect their lifestyle, Snellman said. And the Bedouin appreciate that the Army protects their way of life, he said.

When the Bedouin come into conflict with land-owning sheiks, U.S. soldiers sometimes mediate.

"It's important to us to respect their culture," Snellman said.

Lasting improvements

The water tanks are still in use. The village still has power. Progress is slower on the irrigation canal project, as soldiers continue to negotiate various tribal disputes.

But these small successes near Tallil represent a victory of sorts.

Since the war began three years ago, U.S. taxpayers have spent

$38 million in the country for clean drinking water, electricity, vaccinations and other improvements.

Many of these improvements are targets for sabotage. Others sit unused by Iraqis out of fear.

Some say the very presence of U.S. soldiers destabilizes the country.

Snellman said he doesn't think about politics when he's on duty. He and other soldiers concentrate on doing their job and taking care of the soldiers around him.

"The reality is, it's long and it's boring," he said. "The challenge is being ready for whatever your job may be."

JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at jmohr@duluthnews.com .

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