"My friend, this is for you," a local sheik named Ali told Elicerio, handing him the reins of a camel. "I understand this is your birthday. We've come to celebrate."
He also handed Elicerio an Arab headdress, a shawl, a robe -- and a shotgun. Elicerio had confided to the sheik earlier that he loved the outdoors and hunting wild game. And so here they were, in the middle of a war, chasing wild rabbits. It all seemed unreal.
When they were done, a sheep in the back of one of the trucks was slaughtered, and there in the desert, Elicerio sat at a campfire, eating the roasted meat with flat bread, tomatoes and onions.
The year before, he had spent his birthday with his family, in Las Vegas.
A few days later, an Army convoy rolled up in a swirl of dust toward a concrete slab of a building on the edge of Qaryat al Majarrah, a village of squat yellow brick houses.
"Mister, mister!" some Iraqi kids yelled, following the truck. "What are you doing? Why are you here?"
The answer to their questions could be glimpsed in the vehicles, which looked like a movable flea market bearing piles of medical supplies, clothes, soccer balls and Beanie Babies.
Stepping from one truck was Dr. Joe Burns, a North Dakota emergency room doctor who had arrived weeks earlier for a six-month stint with the 1st Brigade Combat Team. He was in this village to join Iraqi Army personnel in a goodwill mission -- a daylong health clinic.
Burns, a colonel, had been to war before, serving in Bosnia. But everything about Iraq was different, including his new home, a dusty metal storage container.
With his wire-frame glasses and rosy complexion, Burns was a man comfortable in his own skin. He had a healthy dose of Midwestern common sense and an unflappable manner.
He'd need it. His temporary clinic was a building with no heat, electricity or water. It was surrounded by a concertina wire perimeter unfurled by U.S. troops. Visitors were searched for weapons and explosives.
Burns shared his duty with an Iraqi doctor, a colonel who told him a harrowing story -- his 11-year-old son was kidnapped near his school and released only in exchange for several thousand dollars.
As patients filed in, Burns felt like a frontier doctor. He knew what was wrong, but couldn't do much to help.
When a 7-year-old Iraqi girl born with her heart on the right side asked, through an interpreter, if the Americans could do anything, Burns told her no, regrettably he couldn't.
When she said her 15-year-old sister, frail and bundled in a long coat and a headscarf, was tired and cold all the time, Burns felt the girl's neck for a pulse. Her heart rate was 110, about 50 percent above normal, even when she sat still.
Checking her heart with a stethoscope, Burns heard an incredibly loud sound: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, like a washing machine.
He suspected the girl had had rheumatic fever that had scarred her heart valves so the blood didn't flow as quickly at it should. He drew the girl a picture on a scrap of paper showing her the valves and explaining her illness.
Burns knew she needed surgery, but her family didn't have money. He also knew she wasn't likely to get help.
His final visitor was a father in his 30s, dressed in white flowing robes, his face creased by the sun. He was clutching CAT scans.
He said his 15-month-old daughter had become ill months earlier. The symptoms -- stiffness, a high fever, aching head -- sounded like meningitis to Burns.
By the time the father had arrived with his daughter at an Iraqi hospital, she was blind and having seizures. The Iraqi doctors told him she needed a brain wave test and a brain scan. They also prescribed medicine.
Burns studied the CAT scans, holding them up to a dust-caked window for light. He saw no abnormalities. He assured the father the medicine she was prescribed was good.
But the father had a request: Could they fly his sick daughter to America for the brain tests?
The Iraqi doctor, who was treating another patient, said nothing. He and Burns shared a knowing glance -- no tests would change the daughter's prognosis now.
Burns put a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. No father wants his children to suffer, he said, adding that he had four children himself. The best thing to do, Burns said, is continue giving her the medicine.
The father thanked him, took the CAT scans and left.
Had the day's mission done any good? Burns wondered.
"How much different will things be for Iraq as a result of today?" he wrote in his journal. "Will the insurgents have a less receptive hiding place? Will IEDs become less frequent? Will the children of this town be more likely to have a future with less hatred?"
Joe Burns hoped so, but that was about all he could do.
And in the weeks to come, hope became much harder to sustain.
To be continued.