- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

CAMP STRIKER, Iraq — The “Hispanic Titanic” walks toward a reporter along a mud-covered gravel pathway, flicking his head repeatedly to one side, elbow by his head, one eye twitching.

“Hey, you know any people up there in Congress?” he asks. “In Washington? Tell them that I’m, you know” — twitch, twitch — “that I need to get out of here,” he says, cracking up Sgt. Maj. Charles E. Stanley, one of the few soldiers here who does not have a nickname.

Ribbing one another is largely what keeps these soldiers going, helping them to laugh through the tough times, when buddies die or during the tedium of living here at Camp Striker outside Baghdad, where the cement walls are brown, the mud is brown, the tents are gray-brown and even the few scraggly trees on the horizon look brown.

Everyone gets a laugh out of the Hispanic Titanic, a barrel-chested soldier who performs outrageous five-minute, no-holds-barred rants on just about any subject or person, whether he is sitting in the large, airy chow hall or crunched into the plywood-floor tent that serves as the unit’s tactical operations center.

“He’s my little fat buddy,” Maj. Stanley said of Titanic. “He makes me laugh all the time. The dude is crazy; he’s just hysterical.”

Then there are those who star in the portable-toilet graffiti wars and whose reputations will never be the same again. Or those who found out that you should never fall asleep with your mouth open around a bunch of infantry “joes,” and that you should never, ever give out your MySpace password.

But even among those who think that exploding ready-made meals filled with hot sauce are funny or that a human waste product makes for a good gag, there are lines that will not be crossed.

“Parents, wives, kids — those things are off-limits. Unless you want to fight,” said Titanic, who has suffered his share of teasing.

There is at least one lady’s man in every unit — the guy who hits the gym regularly and wears form-hugging T-shirts to show off his muscles. The Strykers here have “Big Willie,” a well-built man from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, with a Clark Gable mustache.

Big Willie can’t resist leaning way back in his chair, flashing a perfect white smile and calling out to the women walking by. “Shaw-ty,” he drawls, dragging out the word “shorty,” slang for “hey, beautiful.”

Only one nickname is spoken in whispers here — that of the battalion commander. “Huggy Bear” is not exactly feared — what soldier would acknowledge that? — but there is a healthy respect for the man who can be either charming over dinner or fierce in his criticisms.

“You been ‘Hugged’?” someone will ask of the latest poor joe to be called to task.

“Malibu” takes three careful pinches from his tin of Copenhagen and stuffs it into his mouth. It’s 7:30 a.m., and the redheaded soldier, nicknamed for his easy smile and surfer look, is getting ready for another day of patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

Sitting opposite him on the barely cushioned seat of an 8-ton Stryker vehicle is “Turtle,” a staff sergeant with 14 years in the military and 20 months in Iraq. Later, he laughs out loud about Malibu’s nickname. “Yeah, sometimes we call him Malibu Ken — or Barbie.”

But once the troops hit the street, equipped with M-4s, body armor and flame-resistant gloves, most of the joking stops. These are professional soldiers who have killed and faced death for one another and for their country.

Operations in Baghdad can get tense. A sniper’s bullet snaps just above a soldier’s head as the team walks out of an abandoned building. Or a bomb goes off, leaving others wondering who got hit.

Back at Camp Striker, in the tactical operations center, all joking stops when an emergency arises. Orders are yelled back and forth, phones ring and soldiers rush by with documents, maps and data, ready to fix the problem.

Then, suddenly, someone will crack a joke. The emergency is over.

These soldiers are part of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Malibu is Sgt. Matthew Caulfield, 24, of Long Island, N.Y. He is on his second deployment to Iraq, with 22 combat months.

Turtle is Staff Sgt. Brian Long, 32, of Burns, Wyo. He is on his second deployment to Iraq, with 20 months served.

Hispanic Titanic is Staff Sgt. Alfredo M. Rocha, 30, of Santa Ana, Calif. This is his third deployment, with 20 combat months.

Big Willie is Sgt. 1st Class Ralston Williams, 44, of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. This is his first deployment, with 10 months of combat.

Huggy Bear is Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, battalion commander, 44, of North Carolina. This is his third deployment, with 25 months of combat.

Maj. Stanley, 48, is from Decatur, Ill. This is his third deployment, with 22 months of combat.

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