CHECKPOINT CHARLEY, Iraq (AP) _ Lance Cpl. Paul Kershner spent Memorial Day teaching Kurdish kids. Staff Sgt. John Dykes dreamed of his wife's spicy macaroni.

As America turned its thoughts to the soldiers of its past, its current warriors chowed down on a barbecue and wondered when they were going home.

''The ship is looking pretty good these days,'' said Dykes, 33, from Miami, as he stood with other members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 103- degree heat on a dusty stretch of Iraqi highway. ''After a while the sun starts to fry your brain.''

Dykes and the other men, who had been sailing in the Mediterranean before being deployed in Turkey and Iraq, were manning the Marines' final checkpoint in northern Iraq. An enterprising Kurdish entrepreneur brought soda pop to the troops, selling cans for 50 cents.

''It's my first cold drink in 35 days,'' Dykes said, guzzling an Iraqi-made cola.

Still, he said, he dreamed of having his wife's extra spicy chili to add to the fun.

Hundreds of trucks roared past the Marines' barbed-wire checkpoint carrying Kurds from refugee camps home to Dohuk. To date, more than 95,000 have returned to the provincial capital, a sign that the allied operation to bring the Kurds home is succeeding.

At the checkpoint, Kershner, a 21-year-old from Boyertown, Pa., waved at the trucks, his thumb and pinky extended.

The young Marine giggled as Kurdish children mimicked him.

''We've got them all doing the thumbs-up sign. This'll move them to a higher plane,'' he said.

''Hang loose, dude 3/8'' he barked at a freckled Kurdish youngster who returned the new hand signal.

In addition to his M-16, Kershner was walking with a stick, nicknamed JoBo by the troops.

The 5-foot-long staff belongs to 2nd Lt. John Golden, 24, of Herndon, Va., who carved an eerie face into the wood.

It's become something of a mascot for the platoon.

One especially hot day, Golden grabbed the stick, strapped a 2-by-4 to each foot and attempted to ski down a hill.

''The sun's getting to everybody,'' said Dykes, ''even the lieutenant.''

Throughout occupied Iraq and in southern Turkey, the smells of one giant cook-out after another wafted through the heat.

U.S. Army Maj. Mark Paun, a logistics officer in Turkey, said more than 10 tons of steaks, burgers and hot dogs, with all the fixings, were being airlifted from the air force base in Incirlik to the troops.

''That's a helluva lot of chow,'' he said.

British, Dutch, Spanish and French soldiers could also expect a free meal.

Some Americans griped that no alcohol was allowed, not even a cold beer.

U.S. forces have been ''dry'' since the beginning of the operation to help the Kurds. Other allied troops however have not.

The Italian forces are known to drink both red and white wine with their meals at their camp in the Iraqi city of Zakho. An officer with French forces near Surriya has a small ''wine cellar'' in his tent.

At the Marine Corps headquarters in Zakho, volleyball was the main attraction. Leathernecks carted out deck chairs, caught the sun and cheered, bringing a slice of America to northern Iraq.

The day was also laced with sadness.

At positions of the 3rd Battallion of the U.S. 325th Airborne, many senior officers gathered for a memorial service for an Army private who succumbed to injuries suffered in a mine explosion.

The simple ceremony held in a picturesque valley moved many of the men.

''That was one of the toughest I've ever been to,'' said Col. Jim Jones, a Vietnam veteran and the highest-ranking Marine in Iraq. ''Especially on this day.''