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FROM THE STARS AND STRIPES ARCHIVES

Iraq war: Making history, making Marines

Ted Handler keeps a tight grip on “Pierre,” the Golf Company pigeon, used to detect chemical and biological warfare.

MARK OLIVA / S&S

By MARK OLIVA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 27, 2003

It’s unnerving, realizing the staccato machine-gun fire across the street no longer startles you.

I looked up from my perch in the shade at a military hospital next to the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and saw that none of the Marines around me were too concerned, either.

After a while, you just learn to tell whether rounds are coming in, going out, or are far enough away that there’s no need to worry. That’s what war does to a man. It sharpens the senses and dulls the nerves at the same time.

It wasn’t always this way. Three weeks before, I hunkered behind Humvees in the Kuwaiti desert, sweat pouring down my face as I breathed through the filter of my gas mask. Iraqi forces were launching Scuds, and each time one went up, we went to the ground.

I first met the Marines of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines at Camp Coyote, Kuwait. They were Spartans living in Spartan conditions. Looking back though, it seemed like the lap of luxury. Large tan tents, electricity, two meals a day and water-bottle showers at the camp became sweet memories after we crossed the border into Iraq.

That was March 20, the day the battalion drove through the “breach” and into history. We packed like sardines into the back of 7-ton trucks, sweltered in the desert heat and choked on the dust kicked up by never-ending convoys. This was the last time I actually knew what the date was until we arrived in Baghdad. Keeping track of actual dates became futile, if not impossible.

Instead, things revolved around events. Like the day the company drove through Nasiriyah, the same town where Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five other soldiers were captured and Marines were slugging it out with Fedayeen Saddam forces. Nervous fingers on rifle triggers replaced the boredom of bouncing in truck beds.

There was reason to be scared. The city looked like a picture straight out of Hue City, Vietnam, scene of the infamous street battle more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t until the convoy was well on the other side of the city that the Marines realized most of the gunfire was outgoing. And it wasn’t until then I realized I had never put down the borrowed M-16 to pick up my camera.

Run-and-gun

The road north was a constant run-and-gun. Mortar fire seemed nonstop. The Marines lived in their chemical suits. Feet rotted because no one dared to sleep without rubber overboots. Gas warnings came at all hours, night and day, and everyone learned to live in the shadow of death.

There are sights, sounds and smells that never disappear after combat. Bodies of dead Iraqis, twisted, torn in half and mangled, littered the roads. The sickening, sweet smell of burned flesh lingers in the nostrils for days. Hands crack and bleed because they’re so dry. Skin peels off in thick layers and hair is thick with grit and oil.

T-shirts and underwear are worn for days, long enough that Marines joked they were carrying their own biohazard weapons in the seat of their pants. There are no inhibitions on the battlefield. You take a buddy when you relieve yourself because the last place you want to get shot is in the backside while you squat over a hole in the ground.

But these are the times that make Marines. They learn about each other’s dreams, each other’s families. Cpl. Van Bayless left behind a wife who is carrying his first child. Capt. Paul Wendler has seen only an e-mail photo of his newborn son, Paul Wendler IV. Letters received before the war are dog-eared and tattered. Mail hasn’t come. Even chows are cut to one a day for a while and water is as precious as bullets.

Wedding rings get strapped to watchbands because they no longer stay on the fingers. They’ve lost too much weight.

They’d kill for a cold beer, and just once they’d love to get their hands on the hamburger Meal Ready to Eat.

Just one more day

Expectations dwindle. They just want to wake up in the morning. They just want to make it until the end of the day.

And there are heartbreaking scenes. Civilians killed. News of Marines killed from neighboring units filtered in. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Tom Wiegmann, a corpsman in the company, knelt on the side of a road to treat an Iraqi baby suffering from respiratory arrest.

There was nothing he could do but wrap the child in damp cloth and send its mother off to the local hospital where he knew there would be no pediatric antibiotics.

“The baby will be dead by the morning,” he said with a heavy sigh. Even more heartbreaking for Wiegmann. He and his wife have tried for years to have a child of their own.

But this is combat. This is war. Car horns send terror through the rib cage. It might be a passing Iraqi, but it’s also the sound that warns of gas. No one says the “G” word. That sends everyone scrambling for gas masks.

What little Marines do say to each other is a language so peppered with expletives, mothers would cry if they knew. They live in holes scraped out of the parched ground. They can’t stand the thought of another day in back of the truck, but would do anything to get out of the scorching sun. Their skin is the shade of a coconut, partly because of the sun, but mostly from dirt. And that’s OK, because at least it isn’t raining.

Every day is a conflict of morals. The dawn brings another day the Marines might have to kill someone. Or they might be killed themselves. And they’re ready for that. They pray for their safety, but beg to get into a fight.

Each Marine carries enough firepower to decimate a small village. They want to get into the mix. They want the enemy to stand and fight. Not shoot and run. Or hide behind children. They’re trained to kill, but civilian deaths make them wince.

Mostly, they just want to get it over with. They want to go home, but home is on the other side of Baghdad, so when the convoy creeps to the city limits, there’s renewed vigor.

This is combat

But this is combat. The night before entering the city, a neighboring company takes heavy fire, and it’s up to the Marines of Golf Company to hit the headquarters of the Special Republican Guard in Baghdad the following morning.

Baghdad. Significant enough for me to dig out a calendar and figure it out. It’s April 9.

A promise of 15 minutes of artillery fire falls through. Only seven rounds land before tanks start blasting holes in the wall and Marines fire rockets into guard towers. By now, the thunder of gunfire no longer stops Marines in their tracks.

They press on, kicking open doors. Beyond the headquarters is the U.N. compound, and Iraqis are looting everything that isn’t bolted down. People who can’t afford shoes are carrying out flat-screen computer monitors by the armload until Marines flush them out. And do it again at the hospital next door.

One Marine left a note on a desk in the U.N. compound.

“Sorry your offices were trashed,” it read. “We did what we could.”

This is as far north as I go.

I leave the Marines after gathering up a couple dozen e-mail messages I promise to send out. The staccato machine guns sound, but no one is rattled. I hug the Marines I call brothers before I go. We take a few pictures and within a couple days I’m back with my family.

And that’s heartbreaking, too. At the airport, my 3-year-old son, not old enough to understand war, tells me, “I lost you, Daddy.”

“But you found me,” I tell him. My 10-year-old daughter says nothing. Her tears say it all.

Leaving them behind

I’m happy to be home, but feel guilty. Guilty that my wife kept the house spotless in case someone came knocking on the door to tell her something went wrong. Guilty for not being able to tell her not to worry. Guilty that I could finally take a shower. Guilty that I no longer have to sleep with a gas mask next to my head and guilty that the Marines I called brothers haven’t yet had their own welcome home.

I am a Marine. A gunnery sergeant to be exact, and Marines don’t leave Marines behind. I miss the sound of the Marines calling me “Gunny.” The men with whom I shared the war are my brothers, not because we wear the same uniform, but because I trusted them with my life, and they trusted me with theirs.

They trusted me to tell their story. I ate with them and slept beside them. I hunkered behind trucks in a gas mask praying Scuds wouldn’t land on us next and hugged them when I left while machine-gun fire rattled away in the distance.

I noticed, only then, how unnerving it was that gunfire no longer startled me.


Marines stand guard over wounded enemy prisoners during the whipping winds of a sandstorm north of Nasiriyah, Iraq.
MARK OLIVA / S&S

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