Southern Iraq is dusty and dangerous, and the soldiers of the Kansas-based 891st Engineer Battalion are a little homesick.
And though they have many on-base comforts unknown in previous wars -- a Pizza Hut, exercise facilities and a 24-hour Internet cafe -- troops know that life "outside the wire" is filled with potential danger.
"Our patrols have heard gun fire and explosions, but that is common in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Lee Tafanelli, an Ozawkie resident who commands the battalion. "Citizens are allowed to carry weapons and celebratory fire is common."
The battalion has been in southern Iraq since mid-January. Tafanelli, who resigned his Kansas House seat after being mobilized, discussed the war in a phone call and series of e-mails with the Journal-World.
He declined to say where, precisely, the battalion is located, mentioning only that it is responsible for Army engineering activities in the region south of Baghdad.
His soldiers are responsible for some of the most dangerous work of the war, clearing insurgents' makeshift bombs from the roads where American troops and Iraqi citizens travel.
"There's a lot of debris and trash around a lot of the road areas, so we find them in a lot of different places," Tafanelli said. "But mostly we see where they've been dug" into the road.
But the engineers are also responsible for some of the work that might leave a positive American legacy behind when the war is over -- rebuilding bridges and roads and meeting with sheiks to fix up old schools and build new ones.
"We're trying to get into where we can make more of a difference to these people," Tafanelli said, later adding: "That will be the lasting impact, after we leave here."
Tafanelli's day usually starts before dawn, at 5:30 a.m., so he can review intelligence to get a handle on what threats the battalion might face as it goes about its daily work.
Before a unit leaves the base, he said, its leader receives a map of the route, along with a report of any violence along that route within the last week. So far, the 891st has managed to avoid direct attacks from insurgents.
"Whenever you're outside the wire of one of the operating bases, everybody is mission-focused," Tafanelli said. "They're alert for the unsuspecting."
2nd Lt. Sean Linn, Iola, said the battalion was sent to Iraq with plenty of armor for the vehicles. But soldiers in the unit have improvised additional safety measures.
"Our maintenance crew ... built gun boxes that sit in the back of the trucks that provide extra protection for the gunner," Linn said in an e-mail. "The vehicle crew will then add sandbags to the top of the vehicle as a gun rest or place sandbags on the sides and floor of the vehicle as added protection."
But officers in the 891st can't hide behind sandbags and armor when they meet with local Iraqis to discuss building projects.
"Actually, as engineers, we deal with the local population daily," Tafanelli said, adding: "They're big on having tea here, of course."
Shiite-dominated southern Iraq often suffered under the rule of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-filled government. Residents there, Tafanelli said, were ready for change.
The late January elections only added to his sense of optimism.
"If you could see the look on people's faces," he said, "you could tell they were very, very proud of having the opportunity to vote for the first time."
The troops are almost too busy to get homesick; they generally get just one day off during the week.
During their free time, though, soldiers can go to the Pizza Hut or Burger King on base, spend time in the library, or get exercise on the softball field.
"It's all sand of course, but they play softball seven days a week," Tafanelli said.
Soldiers also have access to the Internet cafe, where they can make 5-cent-a-minute phone calls back to the United States, or e-mail friends and family.
There, they can also look at the battalion Web site, 891engineerbattalion.com, to see messages from home posted on the bulletin board.
Thursday, "proudarmymom" posted her good wishes on the site.
"I think of you all every minute of the day and pray for your safe return," she wrote. "You guys are doing a wonderful job."
In previous wars, soldiers contacted home with "snail mail" that took weeks and sometimes months to cross the ocean. New technologies, Tafanelli, have eased the pain of separation among soldiers and their families.
""There's the daily contact and real-time contact that didn't exist in previous wars, at least not to the degree it's available now," he said. "That goes a long way toward alleviating the fears families have, the apprehension back home."
But it's still not easy.
Eudora's Nancy Moyer said she slowly adjusted after her school principal husband, Rod, left to serve as a staff sergeant with the 891st. He's missing his daughter play her final year of high school sports.
The school board has continued to pay Rod's salary, she said, and the community has been supportive.
"I think what people need to realize the most -- people remember the soldiers, that they're a long way from home, but they need to remember the families, too," she said. "My kids, particularly, I feel have made a sacrifice by their dad being gone."
Some soldiers' wives have bonded more tightly. Last weekend, Tammy Tafanelli -- Lee Tafanelli's wife -- hosted seven battalion wives for a romantic holiday without their husbands.
"We had a sleepover and dinner for Valentine's Day," she said.
The Tafanellis' two children, she said, are no longer allowed to watch the news.
"They had bad dreams at first," she said. "I don't have the news on much anymore -- anything that's on about Iraq, they ask, 'Is that where dad is?'"
Lee Tafanelli said he and other soldiers in the 891st try to reassure their families, while remaining realistic about a danger that could spring from anywhere.
"You know, we're in a relatively safe environment, if you can say that about a war zone," he said. "There is no battle line here in Iraq."
And the soldiers, Tafanelli said, miss home as much as they are missed.
"I think I can speak for everyone," he said, "when I say we all miss our families and our friends the most."
The Journal-World is seeking any photos taken of Kansas troops serving in action overseas. To submit a photo, e-mail Bill Snead at email@example.com, or send the photo by mail to "Soldier Photos," c/o Lawrence Journal-World, 645 N.H., Lawrence 66044.