SIMPLY SEMPER FI
Simply Semper Fi
By Roger Roy
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 27, 2003
The gas mask had hung at my hip for so long it felt almost permanently
attached, and I'd gotten to where I'd reflexively reach down to make
sure it was there, like checking for keys before locking the car door.
But now I handed the mask and the rest of my issued gear to the Army
captain, and he checked off his list: atropine injectors, pants and
jacket to my chemical-weapons suit, rubber overboots and gloves. He
marked off the list and slid it over the counter, and I signed it.
"You are now officially disembedded," he told me, and I'd been around
Marines so much I was almost startled he hadn't said, "Good to go," the
Corps' catchall phrase that means you're ready for anything, even if it
involves bayonets and a beach that somebody else thinks belongs to them.
I almost mentioned that to the captain, but I figured, he's Army, he
wouldn't get it. A few weeks earlier, I wouldn't have gotten it myself.
For more than a month, I'd been, in military parlance, "embedded" with
the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, traveling and living with the
Marines as they pushed north from Kuwait to Baghdad.
It was an experience that had swung dizzily from rewarding to
exasperating to frightening, and now that it was suddenly over I was
still sorting through its ups and downs. That night after turning in our
Marine-issued gear at the military press headquarters in Kuwait City, I
had dinner with a reporter I'd been with since before the war started,
Wayne Woolley of the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., who'd been embedded
with the same unit. At the five-star Hilton looking out over the Gulf,
we ate smoked salmon and fresh fruit and smoked Iraqi cigarettes. We
wished you could buy alcohol in Kuwait, and managed not to feel guilty
even though we knew the Marines we'd left in Iraq the day before were
still eating MREs.
Over dinner, we rehashed our experience and came to a conclusion that
would have stunned us if someone had suggested it a month earlier: If we
were 18 or 19 again, neither of us was sure we'd be able to resist the
urge to join the Marines.
The idea was troubling on several levels. First, practically speaking,
we should have known better by then. Being with the Marines meant we'd
been through the whole war without a hot shower, learned to consider
ourselves lucky when we had a new MRE box for a toilet and occasionally
worried we were about to be shot. We'd seen how the Marines had to make
do with old or insufficient gear, some of it dating to the Vietnam era.
It's hard to argue that willingly subjecting yourself to such a thing
isn't a sign of simple-mindedness.
Beyond that, it was hardly a ringing endorsement of our ability to keep
our distance from those we were writing about. I'd covered police,
courts and politics without ever once wanting to be a cop, a lawyer or a
Fortunately, I'm old enough that our discussion that night was purely
But I think our reaction explains much about the Pentagon's decision to
embed several hundred reporters for the war in Iraq, the first time the
press has enjoyed such close war-time access to the U.S. military since
Someone at the Pentagon had figured out what we now recognized: No
matter what you think of the military as an institution, it's hard not
to admire the actual rank-and-file troops.
Who would write glowingly about the Marine Corps bureaucracy for trying
to push a convoy of 150 supply trucks through hundreds of miles of enemy
territory with too little fuel, too few radios and not enough heavy
But it's a different story when told from the seat next to a 19-year-old
lance corporal at a wheel of a truckload of high explosives who hasn't
slept in two days and is just trying to get the mission done.
Before the war, I'd never spent much time with the Marines, and I wasn't
sure what to expect when I was assigned to them. I think I understand
Marines better now, but I'm not sure I can explain them.
They tend to do things the hardest way possible.
They call each other "devil dog" and say "Hoo-rah."
They are loud and rough. They have lots of tattoos. They'll ignore you
or torment you if they think you're a fake. They'll do anything for you
if they like you.
They'll believe the wildest rumors. One told me, early in the war, that
he'd heard the Army, rather than the Marines, would occupy Baghdad
because the Marines "break too much stuff."
Marines tend to think and travel in a straight line.
They have a talent for complaining and swearing that I've seldom seen
I heard entire conversations between Marines that consisted of nothing
but acronyms laced with profanity, something like:
"Where's your #&% NCO?"
"At the ^*&$ COC for *+$ CSSB."
"We need some #@* LVSs and a couple of *#% MTVRs."
Marines get things done. They follow orders. They would sometimes do
crazy things if they thought they'd been told to.
Once, during a convoy stop, a young Marine begged us out of an MRE box
we'd been saving for a toilet. When Woolley gave him the box, he made a
joke about bringing it back, but the Marine thought he was serious.
Five minutes later, the Marine was back, offering the no-longer-empty
box back to a horrified Woolley.
It had Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Mlay, who was standing there when the Marine
brought the box back, shaking his head.
Marines may not be the smartest, Mlay said, but you have to give them
credit for following orders.
That doesn't mean they're afraid to point out that their orders may be,
to politely paraphrase an often-used Marine term, messed up.
"That's (messed) up, sir," is a phrase I heard countless times.
I'm sure it was the first thing the Marines said when they saw the reefs
at Tarawa or the Japanese positions on Mount Suribachi.
There were endless variations of the phrase -- "Sir, that's totally
(messed) up," and "Sergeant, you won't believe how (messed) up it is."
But after complaining, the Marines would do what they'd been told, even
if it didn't make any sense.
Most of the Marines were very young, most lance corporals only 19 or 20.
That may be why I ran across so many of them who managed to have both a
sentimental streak and a mean streak.
I saw Marines who didn't have any extra food or water give what they had
to Iraqi children begging on the roadside. But the same Marines laughed
like crazy when they heard about a Marine who filled an empty MRE bag
with sand, sealed it up and threw it to begging children.
One Marine officer I knew liked to call his Marines "the most demented
young people our society can produce." He wasn't really kidding, but he
still admired them, and I did, too.
The Marines Woolley and I had been embedded with were in the
Transportation Support Group, which included the Orlando-based
reservists of the 6th Motor Transport Battalion. They were running
convoys of ammunition, food, water and fuel, and fighting wasn't
supposed to be their main job.
They were ordered to more or less ignore civilians unless they were
hostile. If they took fire, they weren't to stop: Getting the supplies
to the front was more important than getting into a fight, especially
since the fuel and ammunition trucks in a convoy would have been
Their orders encouraged a sort of
don't-mess-with-me-I-won't-mess-with-you policy. But if someone messed
with them, they were inviting the worst.
Marines return fire with a relish.
At a base south of Baghdad, I heard a young Marine reporting to an
officer about how his convoy had taken sniper fire from a mud brick hut
near the highway.
Did you return fire, the officer asked, and the Marine told him casually
that the Mark 19 gunner had gotten off "about 100 rounds."
The Mark 19 is a sort of machine gun that fires grenades, and 100 Mark
19 rounds would be enough to level most villages in southern Iraq, let
alone one mud brick hut.
But the Marines figured anyone who messed with them had it coming.
Maj. Michael Yaroma of Oviedo, like all officers a dedicated student to
the psyche of his Marines, told me how he'd found a young Marine
tormenting a fly at their base south of Baghdad.
The flies in the desert are big, ugly, biting things, and the Marine had
caught one and pulled its wings off. As it tried to crawl away, the
Marine poked at it with his finger, asking "How do you like it, huh? How
do you like it?"
"What the hell are you doing?" Yaroma asked the Marine.
"He was (messing) with me, sir, so now I'm (messing) with him," the
Marine said, and then he went back to his fly.
When the Marines began pulling out of Baghdad last week, replaced by
Army units, news reports noted how the Army tended to patrol the city in
convoys of Humvees, while the Marines had been on foot and mixed with
I'd seen it myself. There were times in Baghdad when a few Marines would
be on guard at a busy intersection where there were hundreds, even
thousands of Iraqis filing past.
Many of those Marines seemed to enjoy the close contact, laughing,
waving and joking with the Iraqis the best they could given the language
But I also knew that none of them would hesitate to light up the crowd
if it came to that.
A lot of the Marines I met recognized that their experiences in the war
had changed them.
After dark at a camp in Central Iraq, we were sitting with about a dozen
Marines, and one of them of them was telling the group about his
experience handling Iraqi prisoners, which the unit transported back to
The prisoners weren't treated gently, and the Marine was demonstrating
how the guards would give them a string of contradictory orders the
Iraqis didn't understand anyway, making their point by aiming their
rifles at the prisoners' faces.
"We're like, What's your name! Shut up! Stand up! Sit the hell down!"
The Marine was waving his loaded M-16 around wildly and finally Sgt. Rob
Anderson told him, "Put your damn rifle down."
The Marine sat down and, after a few seconds, he said, "When I get home,
I'm taking an anger-management course."
Everybody cracked up, mostly because they knew he was completely
I found that even officers who had been studying Marines for years still
scratched their heads over them.
One fascinated by their quirks was Maj. Jeff Eberwein, an oil-company
executive in civilian life who has a degree in medieval literature from
Boston College. The books he'd brought to read during the war included
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Eberwein liked to joke about how Marines did things the hardest way.
Since they'd arrived at Camp Saipan in January, the Marines had to wear
their full battle gear -- flak jackets and helmets and carrying their
weapons -- even to the mess hall and latrine.
I thought the conditions at Camp Saipan were bad, with tents that didn't
keep out the dust storms and foul-smelling portable toilets. But it was
luxury compared to conditions after the war started.
And the Marines, who had assumed they would be using holes for toilets
and eating standing up even in camp before the war, thought it was great
they had toilets and a mess tent with chairs.
Eberwein did a hilarious version of a sergeant's reaction to any Marine
who complained about the mess hall food, which was actually awful.
"Do you think they had strawberry jam on Tarawa, Marine?! Did they have
orange juice at Iwo Jima?!"
One day at the big Marine base south of Baghdad, Eberwein and I watched
a Marine take a wrong turn with his LVS, a monster all-wheel drive
truck, and come up to a ditch with a berm beyond it. The Marine could
have backed up a little and turned to avoid the obstacle. But the
shortest path was straight ahead, and after sizing it up the driver just
gunned the motor and the big truck plowed over it, tires spinning and
Eberwein liked to say that Marines think finesse is a French sports car.
But the truth is he admired their single-mindedness to getting the job
done. That day as the truck disappeared through the cloud of dust, he
just shook his head and said, "Mission accomplished."
But while Eberwein tended to be more reflective than most of the
Marines, I came to realize he was one of them.
We were at a camp late one afternoon when one of the Cobra helicopter
gunships patrolling outside the Marine positions suddenly began firing.
Marines grabbed their rifles and ran over the berm, hoping for a fight.
In a few minutes, they all came back grumbling: The Cobra gunner must
have been only clearing his weapon, and there was nothing out there to
Afterward, Eberwein joked about how only Marines would be disappointed
that they couldn't get into a firefight.
But he'd been the first one over the berm.
If we reporters often puzzled over Marines, there were things about us
that didn't make sense to them, either.
The first two questions Marines would ask us when they found out we were
reporters were: Did you volunteer to come, and do you get paid extra for
covering a war?
They acted like we were crazy when we said we'd volunteered, even though
they were all volunteers, themselves, for the Corps if not for this
They also thought we were crazy when they found out we weren't paid any
more to cover a war than to cover a city council meeting. But I always
pointed out that the extra pay the Marines were getting in Iraq was only
a couple of hundred dollars a month, scant compensation for being shot
A surprising number of Marines, unaware that journalists were forbidden
to carry weapons, asked if we were armed.
When we told them the rules prohibited weapons for journalists, more
than a few assumed our denials were just to make it seem we were
complying with the rules, and that we really had some sort of weapons.
Others seemed almost alarmed for our sakes that we were unarmed. Many
insisted on showing us how to fire their M-16s.
After one long, scary night on a convoy in southern Iraq, Sgt. Joseph
Gomez had asked me if I could throw. I knew Gomez played baseball last
year on the Marine Corps team, so I answered that I could throw about
like a girl, why?
He held out a green ball printed on the side, "Grenade, Frag, Delay."
You pull the small pin first, he said, then the larger pin, and throw
I couldn't imagine ever using the thing, and tried to stay away from the
spot in the bed of the truck where Gomez kept it tucked in between the
At first, when we'd climb into a truck we'd wait for one of the Marines
to move the weapons that were lying around. But after a while we'd just
pick up the rocket launcher or M-16 and move it ourselves. Most of the
Marines, after we'd spent some time riding with them, would hand us
their rifles to hold while they climbed in or out of the truck, and it
became so second nature I never thought about it until later.
Maybe that would have made us fair targets. But on the convoys, one of
the biggest dangers was snipers, and there was no reason to believe
they'd have any idea we were reporters rather than Marines, or that
they'd avoid shooting us even if they knew.
The reporters I knew, myself included, didn't expect any Geneva
Convention niceties if we were captured, noncombatants or not.
In any case, my sense of security was directly in proportion to my
confidence in the Marines around me.
We spent the first week of the war with Marines I came to trust
completely -- Gomez and his crew on a truck that provided security for
the convoys, driver Lance Cpl. Robert Kissmann and .50-caliber gunner
Gomez, whose parents live in Sanford, was only 23, but the others on his
squad had the same sort of confidence in him. "He's my daddy," was how
one Marine in Gomez's squad described him.
Gomez called his M-16 Marie, after his wife's middle name, and even his
choice of wife I regarded as a sign of his bravery, since he'd married
his platoon sergeant's daughter, a thought that made even the toughest
I always figured nothing bad could happen until Gomez had fired his last
round, but I was with him during my scariest moment of the war.
On an Iraqi highway south of the Euphrates, during a blinding dust
storm, our security truck stopped to guard a stalled truck full of
ammunition and guided missiles while the rest of the convoy drove ahead.
The dust and howling wind cut visibility at times to only 50 or 60
yards, and Iraqi trucks and cars would suddenly appear out of the dust,
often turning to speed off.
We felt like a whole Iraqi army could be 100 yards away in the dust and
we wouldn't know it.
The wind blew dust in my eyes even with my goggles on, and I was
standing behind the truck, out of the wind. I wasn't particularly
worried until Gomez came back and told me he couldn't see and asked me
to take a look at his eye. That was when I realized all my confidence
was tied up in him.
His eye was bloodshot and full of sand, and I dug out the worst of it
with my fingernail, then washed it out with a bottle of water. It still
looked bad but he said it felt better, and he went back to the road.
The mechanics were still working on the truck, and a few more Marines
had joined us, when we heard a loud squeaking clatter coming up the road
We all knew what it was even before someone said it was tracks, which
meant armored vehicles.
A day earlier, American Cobra gunships or F-18s would have massacred any
Iraqi tanks that dared to venture out, but now nothing was flying in the
Eberwein yelled at a Marine to grab the AT-4 rocket launcher from one of
the Humvees, but I had no confidence in the little rocket.
Besides, you could tell there were several sets of tracks coming up the
road. And I already had a vision of a column of Iraqi tanks coming up
the road and was trying to figure whether it would be better to run
north or south and how long it would take to get out of sight of the
road in the dust storm. I was about to disembed myself on foot.
But when they clattered into sight, the tracks belonged to four U.S.
Army Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which were as surprised as we were by
the encounter. They stopped suddenly, backed up and crossed the road,
keeping their cannons trained on us even as they rolled past and
disappeared into the dust.
I managed to snap a photo of the Bradleys just as they came out of the
dust, but when I looked at it later the image was blurred, as if I'd
moved when I took the shot. I don't think I could blame the wind.
Aside from the fact that the Marine's inclination was to fight and mine
was to run, another difference between the press and the Marines is we
tended to see things as black and white, sometimes in ways that seemed
comical to the Marines.
One night, some Marines had dropped me off after dark at an advance camp
for our unit. I was fumbling around trying to unroll my sleeping bag
when I startled a Marine who came walking around the command tent, which
I was sleeping next to so I wouldn't be run over by a truck in the dark.
"Friend or foe," he asked me, and I had no ready answer. Technically, I
was no one's foe, as a non-combatant. And while I'd made friends who
were Marines, to call yourself a friend implies some compromise of
After a long pause I finally mumbled "Reporter," and when the Marine
laughed I wasn't sure if it was because of my answer or how long it had
taken me to spit it out.
To the Marines, the biggest difference between us was that we were more
or less free to do as we wished.
Technically the rules were that we would stay with our assigned unit,
and that someone would keep track of us. Our press badges said "Bearer
must be escorted at all times."
But within a day of the war's start, we were pretty much free to do as
we wanted, jumping on and off convoys and wandering around wherever we
could get a ride and find Marines to give us water, MREs and a place to
throw our sleeping bags.
We learned to avoid unfriendly officers, and the friendly ones directed
us to convoys that were heading closer to the action, even telling us
when we should jump off to another unit.
Unlike the Marines, we could dress as we wanted and sleep until we
wanted to get up.
But the biggest difference was that we could leave whenever we wished.
Many Marines told us they couldn't believe we would stay out there if we
had the option to go home.
I think it was the knowledge that we could pull out whenever we wanted
that cemented our connection with the Marines.
Just before Woolley and I flew out of Iraq on a C-130 back to Kuwait, we
were saying our goodbyes to the Marines at their base south of Baghdad.
Staff Sgt. Charles Wells, a firefighter and EMT for Orange County Fire
Rescue, made a point of pulling us aside before our flight.
The Marines hadn't known what to expect when they heard reporters would
be living with them, Wells said, and some had feared the worst, that
we'd pry into personal details or try to portray them as bloodthirsty
baby killers. But Wells told us his Marines appreciated how we'd lived
as they'd lived, gone where they'd gone, eaten what they'd eaten, used
the same MRE boxes as toilets and slept on the ground they'd slept on.
By then Wells knew we'd understand exactly what he meant when he told
us, "You guys are good to go."
We considered it the highest praise.
Copyright � 2003, Orlando Sentinel
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