CAMP TAJI, Iraq — The calendar on the wall reads November 2011.
On the ground is a half-filled tin of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. Scattered here and there are bottles of Gatorade, cans of Rip It energy drinks, poker chips, Monopoly money and razor blades.
Stenciled on a wall is a punchy soldier’s slogan: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat.” Taped on another is a note of encouragement from a Boy Scout troop back home: “You are our hero and your commitment to freedom is honorable.”
There is even a jar of salsa still in the fridge.
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When U.S. troops left Iraq three years ago, they left behind a fragile country that collapsed into civil war. They also left behind the detritus of soldiers’ lives that, in the ensuing years, was left untouched, frozen in time.
Now that U.S. forces, in much smaller numbers, are returning to help the Iraqis confront the extremists of the Islamic State, they have found themselves reoccupying some of their old places.
And they are excavating what feels like a slowly decaying time capsule as they discover the things they left behind.
When the Americans left, they turned over their bases to the Iraqis. But here at Taji, aside from some buildings that were clearly ransacked and probably looted of anything valuable, many of the spaces, now covered in a thick coat of dust, were left alone.
One soldier said he found pinups from Maxim, a men’s magazine, still on the walls. And the last copies of Stars and Stripes, the armed-forces newspaper, delivered just before the U.S. departure, are still scattered about the floor of one of the bathrooms. The score from an NFL playoff game in 2011, now considered a classic upset, is painted across an awning: Saints 36, Seahawks 41.
At Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad and once home to a sprawling U.S. air base, even the street signs the Americans posted are still up. Separating a patch of housing units from the cavernous aircraft hangars is the corner of Longhorn Avenue and 46th Street.
Laith al-Khadi works on the base at a convenience store stocked with the necessities of a soldier’s life: energy drinks, Cuban cigars, DVDs and many other things. He is happy to see the Americans back and, to accommodate them, is trying to find a stock of Copenhagen.
“It’s good for us,” he said. “Sales are booming.”
So far, the Americans have taken up residence at two of their old hubs, here and at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province. The Army is here, and the Marines are in Anbar. It is a tiny footprint compared with the past — about 180 soldiers here, and an additional 200 or so military personnel in Anbar.
For weeks, before starting their training programs with new Iraqi recruits, Marines and soldiers have had to refurbish their areas of the bases, filling sandbags, fortifying perimeters and getting the electricity working.
One Marine major in Anbar, who has been in Iraq before and had just returned from Afghanistan in September when he was ordered back to Iraq, said it was “eerie” and “spooky” to return. Another said the place looked like “a train wreck.”
First Lt. Nolan Gore, a Marine from Texas who has been busy setting up the camp in Anbar, said that when he arrived, the place looked “apocalyptic.” Then he thought about it and said it actually looked “post-apocalyptic.”
When the Marines are attacked by rockets or mortar rounds — as they are frequently, but so far with no casualties — they often can pinpoint the source of the fire, send the information up the chain and then watch on a screen in their headquarters as the attackers are taken out by airstrikes.
The Marine major, who spoke anonymously because he was worried that identifying him could put his family at risk of an attack by the Islamic State, said he had been trying to explain to the Iraqis, “We are not going to come in this country and clear it out again.”
Many, but not all, of the troops who have come back to Iraq have been here before, sometimes multiple times. The mission is different this time — not to fight but to train units of Iraqis to do the fighting themselves.
Many of them feel that for the Iraqis to be most effective against the Islamic State, they should have U.S. advisers accompany them closer to the front lines to at least help pinpoint targets for airstrikes. President Obama has so far resisted that step.
On a tabletop at the headquarters building here at Taji is a copy of a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, its headline, “What Have We Learned? Lessons From Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Inside, highlighted in green ink, are several passages.
“The United States also needs to cultivate better strategic thinkers in both the military and the civilian spheres,” is one.
“Plan for what comes after the overthrow of a regime,” is another. Still another: “Challenge rosy assumptions during the course of a conflict.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Keith of the Army is here for his fifth deployment. Watching the news last year about the gains of the Islamic State across Iraq, he had a feeling he would wind up back here.
His family had mixed reactions to his deployment orders.
“I don’t think my wife was surprised,” he said. “She’s been with me awhile; she’s a strong woman.”
His father had a different take.
“My dad was just like, F this,” he said.