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Otherwise, life is relatively quiet for most troops in southwest Afghanistan, where Marines live in rows of tents or metal containers on top of rocks, gravel or dirt separated by concrete barriers. Sand continuously drifts through the air, and temperatures soon hit triple digits.

During their downtime, many exercise, shoot pool, watch movies, surf the Internet and take online classes. Others read books or go to Green Beans, a coffee shop franchise at U.S. military bases across the country, for spiced chai lattes and other frosty drinks.

The meal choices on some nights included steak, tacos, chicken tandoori and even lobster.

But soon, services would begin drawing down along with the contracted workforce, and hot meals would eventually be replaced by meals, ready to eat — preserved food in foil packets — and Marines would return to the expeditionary posture they began with at the start of the war.

Several young Marines said are happy to be part of the war effort, and had wanted to come to Afghanistan ever since Sept. 11, but they were disappointed they were not leaving their bases often.

“It’s kind of boring out here,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Noland from Deadwood, S.D., a 22-year-old Navy medic. “I want to get out of here and go out and see some stuff, like the Afghans’ way of life.”

“When you’re out on missions, it makes the time go faster,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Greg Rosas, a Navy engineer from Fort Worth, Texas. “Downtime sucks. The more work, the easier it is.”

Nowadays, leaving the safety of Camp Dwyer involves a cost-benefit analysis, one likely made by coalition commanders across the country.

“I have to decide before every mission: Is this worth taking the risk?” Col. Treglia said.