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Marine 1st Lt. Knox Nunnally, left center, of Company D, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, addresses his platoon at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, before it headed out on a recent night patrol.
Marine 1st Lt. Knox Nunnally, left center, of Company D, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, addresses his platoon at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, before it headed out on a recent night patrol. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

FALLUJAH, Iraq — The platoon rolled out of Camp Baharia and onto the highway.

In a place where troops face situations that require them to kill or be killed, the mood changes when the sun goes down. So do the tactics.

“During the day, it’s a lot easier to see the enemy,” said Lance Cpl. Samuel Herzberg of Norman, Okla., and Company D, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. “But at night we’ve got night vision and thermal vision. We see them before they see us.

“That’s how we tear them up.”

The five Light Armored Vehicles rolled north on Route 1 into a red sunset. Children in an adjacent neighborhood played soccer while adults stood nearby in small groups. Because it’s 110 degrees or more in the afternoon, Iraqis often wait until dusk to come outside. That goes for the enemy as well.

The patrol moved ahead with lights out, even on darkened roads. Drivers used night-vision gear to make their way.

“We’re a little more stealth and it’s harder for the enemy to see us,” said Sgt. Alfonso Nava of Dallas. “On the other hand, it can be more dangerous. You can’t see IEDs [improvised explosive devices] like you can during the day.”

In a way, the Marines can see more at night because the tracers of gunfire and blast of rockets stand out in the darkness. The rocky landscape appears dark green through night-vision goggles and appears similar to the surface of the moon.

The patrol pulled off the highway several times and parked in adjacent fields. The eight-wheeled LAVs looked like black silhouettes as they sat parked. The Marines inside watched as convoys rolled by. The truckers were not fired upon.

The troops can hear more at night, too, in the still of night when every little sound stands out.

“At the same time we have to be quiet, too,” said Lance Cpl. Jorge Duarte of Graham, N.C. “Every little sound can give away your position.”

Explosions are easily heard in the distance. A tiny, unmanned spy plane buzzed overhead, sounding like a giant mosquito.

The Marines, when asked to talk about the difference between day and night patrols, pointed to the differences as they pertain to warfare.

“At night, you shoot at silhouettes and muzzle flashes,” Duarte said. “During the day you can actually see another human being. You see him drop to the ground and know if you got him or not.”

But they also acknowledged that the nighttime weather made for more tolerable working conditions.

Said one Marine: “[After a daytime patrol] you sleep for like 10 hours and could sleep for a couple more because the sun just drains you.”

As usual in central Iraq, where months can pass without a single cloud appearing, the night sky was clear and the stars were brilliant. Through night-vision goggles they are even more spectacular, a real life planetarium.

For all the fire, smoke and destruction that mark the Iraqi landscape during the day, working the night patrol can provide the Marines with a pleasant reprieve. When they park their vehicles in a field and watch the highway, and 18-wheelers pass by without incident, the Marines can relax under the stars.

And they talk about women and beer and barbecues.

“It’s a lot easier to relax at night,” Herzberg said. “Every time you look up and see the stars, it’s like, ‘Man, I’m not always going to be over here.’ It brings back a lot of memories.

“Then you hear a little twig snap and you’re back on your toes.”

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