CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan — The first alarms begin sounding around 4:45 a.m.
The cerulean sky is brightening but the sun hasn't yet risen. The women in 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad pull on their T-shirts and fatigues, the same clothes they've worn for months, and prepare for another day. It's pretty much like the day before and the day after. And the day after that.
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard's 829th Engineer Co. have been busy tearing down tents, buildings and other structures, and packing up parts and equipment as the 13-year-old war draws to a close. They have been in Afghanistan since early June. The days and weeks have blended into each other as they move across Camp Marmal's landscape, wiping away all evidence that soldiers used to live here.
At 5:15, Pfc. Ashley Grassman, 24, has washed her face and gotten dressed, and is downing a protein shake. On a chair is the gear she'll need: helmet, sunglasses, soft "boonie" hat, M-4 rifle and ear plugs.
Her friend, Pfc. Lisette Martinez, sticks an arm out of her curtain-draped bunk and grabs a pair of black shorts. "It's not very exciting in the morning. I wake up and see how my hair looks," says Martinez, surveying her bed head.
The pair were working at Trader Joe's in Glendale when they decided last year on a whim to join the National Guard.
At breakfast in the dining facility, called the DFAC, 1st Squad soldiers load paper trays with fruit, cereal, made-to-order omelets, hard-boiled eggs and bacon. They sip from juice boxes.
They look up at televisions and are shocked to learn comedian Robin Williams has died. They discuss their favorite Robin Williams movie.
At the motor pool, soldiers clamber aboard a truck and listen to Staff Sgt. Tom Hinman, 51, of Hazel Green quiz them on their protective gear, asking if each has their ear and eye protection, gloves, hats and steel-toed boots.
They pass around cans of chewing tobacco and hold empty water bottles to spit into. They kid Spc. John Bainbridge, 20, of Port Wing about the time he was left behind while on guard duty because of a mix-up. He ended up taking a shuttle bus back to camp.
"Now, we're always like — 'Where's Bainbridge?'" says Spc. Taylor Wahlberg, 21.
Medic Patrick Blaesing, a 2009 Brookfield Central High School graduate, sits on a spine board he made from scrounged wood and starts singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the truck bumps along. Most join in.
It's 6:30 a.m.
The singers peter out at the song's piano bridge, find their voices again at "Oh mama mia, mama mia" and then fall silent. "C'mon you can't stop at the guitar solo," says Sgt. Michael Threbusch, 27, of Bloomington, Minn. So they pick it up again at the guitar solo and finish the song shortly before the truck pulls up to the work site.
They back into a helicopter maintenance hangar.
Spc. Erica Steinke has turned 25, so they sing her "Happy Birthday" and Grassman tells her she has to do 25 push-ups later. If she was home in Wilton, Steinke says she would probably go shopping and dine at the Red Lobster in La Crosse.
Sgt. Levi Rhody, 24, a recent Northland College graduate, leads them in stretching exercises, and they drink the first of numerous bottles of water and lemon-lime sports drinks packed in a cooler filled with ice.
It's time to work.
Over the next four hours, they work in triple-degree heat. Sweat-drenched, they keep drinking to remain hydrated.
Around midday, they clamber back into the truck and sing "Afternoon Delight" on the way to the DFAC for lunch. They eat vegetables, fruit, grilled turkey sandwiches, French fries and ice cream.
They drink more water.
When they return to the job site for the afternoon shift, the sun appears even brighter and hotter. They rest in dilapidated chairs inside the hangar for 10 minutes, digesting their meals.
Pfc. Colter Luff, 21, of Alma asks if anyone wants to start a fantasy football league. They kid Rhody about his ancient cellphone. They spit tobacco juice into plastic bottles. Steinke does her 25 push-ups as her squad sings to her again.
Then they head back out into the sun, taking breaks to recuperate from the energy-sapping heat. They knock off for the day at 3 p.m., clean up their work space and climb back into the truck by 3:20.
As the vehicle rumbles off in a cloud of dust, everyone on board looks wiped out. Steinke lies down on one of the benches, Spc. Nate Hitchcock falls asleep; Wahlberg closes her eyes.
No one sings.