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Saturday, January 31, 2004

A MARINE'S JOURNAL (PART 1)


A MARINE'S JOURNAL
The Wait in Kuwait
Part 1 of a frontline account of Iraq's liberation.

BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Monday, January 26, 2004 12:01 a.m.

(Editor's note: Mr. Taylor joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1996 and was called up for service in February 2002. His enlistment expired in November 2003. He kept this journal while deployed with the Fox Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines in Kuwait and Iraq. Comments in italics were added after his return to clarify and expand his account and to define military terminology for the benefit of civilian readers. This is the first of five parts.)

23 Feb 03--Camp Coyote (Marine Corps camp in northern Kuwait where I spent approximately three weeks. Before the invasion began it was home to as many as 4,000 Marines.)

We arrived last night to a tent city erected by Kuwaiti money and imported labor. Accommodations come complete with oak plywood floors. The atmosphere is friendly but focused.

The battalion intelligence chief told us to be ready for operations by 1 March. He told us that 2/23 is the only reserve battalion with a combat assignment (Regimental Combat Team 1) and that 2/6 (an active duty battalion) got passed over for this job. The battalion commander spoke, but his words were carried away by the wind. It was brief in any event.

Shari is due to deliver in two days. Current communications assets likely won't permit phone contact. What to say about it? She will be disappointed. God keep her.

Tomorrow we will stow our sea bags (the big green tube-shaped bag Marines carry their gear in; not for tactical use) in shipping containers. We won't be likely to see them again until the end of the war. Decisions must be made about what gear to carry and what to leave. Even the lightest of us will be carrying an absurd amount of weight.

As it turned out, we did not turn over our sea bags the next day. Senior Marines from several companies in the battalion argued against this plan. It seemed likely that weeks might pass before our departure, and having use of that extra gear, mainly extra uniforms and comfort items, would make life in camp much easier. Keeping our sea bags another 20 days meant starting the invasion with a fresh uniform and a supply of clean shorts and socks.

Our prep time is short. There are very few combat veterans here so the unknown looms large. There is no openly expressed or detectable undercurrent of fear in camp. But I feel some anxiety about how I will perform after we get started.

25 Feb 03

We spent yesterday repacking our gear and trying to come to grips with the battalion gear list. The thought of carrying tents and PT (physical training) gear into combat was odious and immediately drew comments like "whoever wrote this list obviously never humped a pack in his life." Eventually battalion got the message that non-mission-essential gear might need to remain behind.

We also played hearts. Garrard can't win and Smith can't lose. But still being jet-lagged we went to sleep in mid-afternoon and woke up around midnight again. It's not a bad sleep cycle for an infantryman. Lance Cpl. Garrard wrote this letter to the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. today:

Dear U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.,

My name is Lance Corporal John Garrard. My friends and I are running desperately low on Skoal Wintergreen Long Cut. Being a part of a forward deployed infantry unit, we are cut off from any opportunity to purchase your products. The Marine Corps prides itself on tradition. It wouldn't seem right for us to lay the hammer down on Iraq without a nice fat chew. Grunts and chew are like peanut butter and jelly. They just don't work without one another. If you could be so kind to send us some chew, we would be forever indebted for your generosity. Please send us some tobacco in an unmarked box so the losers in the rear don't steal it.

Thank you,
LCpl John Garrard
USMC

John has a can-a-day habit but strangely forgot to bring any tobacco. At my suggestion he drafted his letter on the back of an MRE (meal ready to eat; modern single-serving combat ration) box to maximize its front line effect.

This afternoon Sgt. McMullen delivered the first real warning order I've ever received--or rather, the first warning order for a genuine combat operation. Thirty miles north of the border is a disused ammo dump. We are to clear it so follow-on forces may build an EPW (enemy prisoner of war) processing center. It is believed to be unoccupied but light resistance is expected en route.

26 Feb 03

Immediately after the company finished an MRE breakfast, the first hot meal of this deployment rolled in on the back of a five-ton truck. So we ate again. Skipped the MRE lunch though.

Platoon conducted PT this morning. We did the "daily seven" and wind sprints. As we concluded the signal "GAS! GAS! GAS!" rang out so we ran the five paces or so to where our masks were staged and donned and cleared. We spent 40 minutes in masks buttoned in our tents against the possibility of chemical attack. In a nearby area 11th Marines was conducting a drill--false alarm. A few minutes ago the signal rang out again so we are in masks again. In fact I'm writing by flashlight in a closed sweltering tent.

I woke last night at 12:40 feeling that Sharlene had just given birth. No word arrives from the Red Cross and I am anxious for news. I want to know that the baby is well and well formed and healthy, and that Shari is recovering.

And I want to take this mask off.

Unmasked now. It occurred to Cpl. Broberg that all this gas masking has begun on the very day that the First Marine Regimental HQ arrived on scene. And that it has the flavor of unannounced drill. There is a persuasive wisdom there.

27 Feb 03

Capt. Schoenfeld handed me a printed message from the Red Cross informing me of the birth of my son at 12:55 p.m., date not mentioned, presumably on the 25th. It was a fine moment, though not what I would have preferred for the occasion.

Handshakes all around. Eight pounds, 15 ounces. Lots of remarks on the size and well wishing.

Then I walked over to the battalion aid station and received treatment for what appears to be a case of conjunctivitis. The treating officer, Cmdr. Krushka, asked me to return the unused eye drops when I am done because medicine is scarce.

There goes another gas alert. Perhaps there is a causal relationship between journal writing and gas alerts. I should leave off for now.

All clear and unmasked now.

Fragmentary info about our upcoming operation is beginning to filter down. The Fifth Marines are hitting an objective on our left and the Brits are way out on our right flank. The Second LAR (Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion) is attached in support of us and Fox Company will be the main effort in the battalion assault on the objective. Aerial recon shows no activity at the site but there are forces between here and there. One hundred fifty meters beyond our objective is an MSR (main supply route) through which enemy may flee the Fifth Marines. Still no date yet.

Camp life is becoming routine. Marines generally get along and go about their business, but tent walls are thin and sometimes the drama spills out. But what sounds deadly serious to Marines trapped within sounds hilarious to Marines listening without. Fights between young Marines, or the hollering of thoughtless NCOs (noncommissioned officers) at luckless subordinates, are all audible in the lanes between tents. And the predictable futility of that kind of troop management is almost funny when heard from the tents of Marines in other platoons and companies.

Sgt. McMullen is the ranking Marine in my tent and is about the most amiable, happy squad leader I've known. With mock seriousness he narrates his way through MRE mealtime, weighing the comparative merits of different preparation techniques for the dry peach cobbler, or any other mundane gibberish he can enhance with purposeful hand gesturing.

At Garrard's suggestion I replaced Cpl. Taneja with Cpl. Siggard as the assistant automatic rifleman. Taneja assures me that everything is fine, but clearly struggles to find his place in the platoon. Siggard takes some ribbing about being a Marine Corps cook, but is fitting in. He also expresses interest in the weapons systems and team functions, which pleases Garrard.

I learned how to start an IV this afternoon. I stuck Cpl. Biggers in the arm and even managed to hit his notoriously difficult vein. Broberg stuck Arnold and removed the cap on the needle before he had the hose ready and blood jetted out of his arm down his trouser leg and boot. Everyone seemed pleased by the spectacle and they probably learned enough to do it themselves in a pinch.

28 Feb 03

The Fourth Army Infantry Division arrived yesterday. On their first day here they opened a PX, a social club and who knows what else. But their war-fighting gear is still a great way off. Imagine the convoluted set of military priorities that allows such things to happen. It is as if war fighting is incidental to the Army's existence and not its reason for being.

Sgt. McMullen brought a backpacker's multi-fuel stove and all the required gear for percolating coffee in the morning. The company staff is positively abusive in the way they lean on him to "hook up" the CO (commanding officer) or themselves. And his coffee and fuel are running short. It annoys me to see him exploited that way, but he is too decent to consider it exploitation.

At 0900 Staff Sgt. Ivers told me to get my gear and my weapon and jump on Maj. Liddy's humvee to Camp Commando, which is operational headquarters. Commando is half of an old Kuwaiti base situated near Kuwait City. It is a busy purposeful place--a Marine Corps installation but full of Army personnel, Seabees, Brits and reporters. There, unlike here, people shower regularly and shave daily without fail. There are women in uniform, and women with guns. There are mess facilities, barbershops, an exchange and phones. It has nearly all the amenities of an American base.

I went to Commando to use the DSN (Defense Secure Network) line to call Shari. I reached her at about 2:00 a.m. Utah time, but she was awake to feed John Byron. She told me that she had had to undergo an emergency C-section when the baby pinched off his umbilical, but although in the process of asphyxiating himself, he snapped back admirably when they had him out in less than two minutes. She had to endure the incision sans anesthetic due to time constraints, but it went well enough for her. She held the phone to his head and I thought I could hear his eager sucking and nasal breathing. I wish I could just look through a glass on that scene.

I assured Shari that all is fine and fun here. Relayed a message from First Sgt. Lopez to his wife via Shari that he has arrived, is well, and loves her. He made me promise to keep it secret.

During the ride to and from Commando, I sat in the back of an open humvee on security with my rifle in condition 3 (magazine loaded, no round in the chamber, safety on) pointed outboard on the Kuwaiti freeways. Kuwaitis would speed by and smile, wave and give a thumbs-up. Feb. 26-28 are Kuwaiti Liberation Days, a memorial of the short ground operation during which U.S. led coalition forces drove Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait. Apparently the locals haven't forgotten the favor. The drive-by interactions brought me a great deal of gratification and real sense of military pride and adventure.

Now we are the invaders, come to rout out tyranny from its nest. Confusion to the enemy.

1 Mar 03

After the return ride last night from Camp Commando I found Fox Company gone from tactical assembly area Inchon, this area, by bus to Matilda. There are showers at Camp Matilda. I caught the next ride over with Weapons Company and took my first shower in a week. After living on a dust-swept desert plain for even so short a time it felt wonderful. Frankly, I expected not to shower at all, but to wash out of a canteen cup until the war is over. The canteen cup, out of which I bathe and shave, is not for drinking.

Today our platoon has camp guard duty. For four hours during the day and four hours later tonight we gear up, load weapons and stand posts. I guarded a couple of electricians while they installed electric service to the tents (they're not done yet). One was a Pakistani, one an Indian, and we are required to escort them wherever they go, and presumably shoot them if they try anything funny.

At one point while guarding three workers during their lunch, I breeched guard protocol just and little and asked if any of them spoke English. The Pakistani did. From him I learned their nationalities. They ate canned curried meat on flat bread with some kind of yogurt or cheese sauce. It looked and smelled far better than MREs.

When not on guard duty, or otherwise occupied, we rest in the tent (a 20-by-40-foot) take care of our gear, read or play cards, or write letters.

2 Mar 03

I attended an LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) service today in one of the newly erected regimental tents. Forty or 50 LDS Marines from various elements of RCT 1 (Regimental Combat Team; the entire regiment and attachments). We took the sacrament and shared testimonies. The finest moments were the singing of hymns, which make worship so easy and free. And doing it all in such an improbable place as this, and with a rifle at hand and a gas mask on the leg makes one even more mindful of the goodness of God.

Rumors about when we may cross the LOD (line of departure; where the invasion begins) and initiate this effort circulate daily. But the general consensus is that we will be fighting in Iraq by the second or third week of March.

The desert camps are rapidly filling and multiplying. The amount of men and material massed here is so large that any pretense of a mere show of force must surely be gone. We are here to fight, not threaten.

The lights came on last night. The whole camp cheered when electric service was finally established and the previously dormant fixtures flickered on in our tents. Now we can cease tripping over one another in the dark and burning our scarce batteries.

There are 20 people in this tent and it is crowded. The desert creeps in under the flaps and follows us in on our boots.

At 1300 Capt. Gougen came to the tent and offered to take my fire team and me down to the battalion command operations center tent to see digital photos of the baby. Maj. Kundith took a photo of us to send home and then we crowded into the COC. They were going over aerial imagery of our first objective and making plans. But they happily turned all that off, inserted a new disk in the computer, fumbled to find the right application for picture viewing. My whole team moved into the seats formerly held by most of the command staff and then everyone in the COC looked at baby pictures. It was an incongruous moment when desert warriors paused to stare at a new baby and congratulate his father. Whoever ran the slide show promised to print the pictures off and pass them along later.

4 Mar 03

No one here knows when we will cross into Iraq. And I suppose it is possible that we might not go at all, if the radio reports of diplomatic efforts are to be believed. But it seems inconceivable that so much force should be massed here just to allow it to be dissipated by international diplomats a world away, people who, for the most part, take no notice of U.S. security imperatives. Here in the camps the feeling is that this is a military task that must be accomplished.

And the sooner the better. I've got other things to do. A marine from H&S Company, a clerk, brought the pictures of John by my tent last night. The pictures capture that startled look newborns wear while they are trying to gauge the size of their new space. It must be disconcerting to be unable to touch the very edges of your world at any moment and instantly know your place in it.

The USNS (U.S. Navy Ship; civilian-manned) Greenlake, the ship on which our battalion's heavy gear and vehicles are embarked, has arrived at a Kuwaiti port. Now it waits for dock space and unloading service.

Yesterday we practiced loading and unloading the seven-ton trucks on which we will probably ride into Iraq. The beds will be lined with sandbags to insulate troops against the effects of anti-vehicle mines. Some marines complained that the sides will not be similarly fortified against small arms fire. But it's not our call. That decision was made by someone who won't be riding in the back of a truck.

We had classes about how to breach a minefield with a grapnel (a small anchor used for grappling) on a line and bangalore torpedoes. We had a refresher course on M240G machine-gun employment.

And we played a mort of cards. We play hearts like we were giving it up for Lent. I have a strategy of thinning out my diamonds or clubs by initial trade, and then sloughing off everything else. I can usually avoid taking a point that way, and it drives Broberg and Garrard mad when I almost immediately start sloughing hearts or the queen of spades right away.

This morning I got up at 0500 and went to chow, the only one in my platoon who bothered. Then I lined an MRE box with a black trash bag and did my laundry. Laundry day was actually two days ago for our company, but there was a sandstorm that caked every wet thing with a crust of mud. Most of us wisely waited. But Capt. Schoenfeld, our platoon commander, saw Cpl. Giles doing his socks yesterday and ordered him to stop as it was not our day for washing. So this morning I took my wash behind the truck farm and washed several sets of underwear and socks. I hung it to dry inside the tent. I can scarcely fathom why a captain of Marines would trouble himself with a matter so trivial as when Marines wash socks, particularly three days before we go to war.

Word came down yesterday that the 9th is the day we go. In three days my seven-year focus on training will change into application. It is time for doing.

8 Mar 03

OK, it isn't quite time for doing. Yesterday's intelligence brief revealed that our battalion's armored vehicles have been given to First Regiments other battalions. Now we are waiting for other vehicles and probably not crossing the LOD with RCT 1.

I washed my hair this morning with some shampoo donated by the Salvation Army. I just knelt on the ground and poured water out of my canteen. I feel great.

The storm yesterday kept us inside our tents. Someone in headquarters shared a computer with Second Platoon and we watched a movie. We made a makeshift theater out of MRE boxes and watched "Austin Powers 3."

I wish I had new news of Shari and the children. How is John's jaundice? How does Jane progress through kindergarten? And what is Keith's occupation?

Cpl. Broberg and Sgt. McMullen decided that we should all grow mustaches. Sgt. Rogers, the Third Squad leader, sports a notoriously scrubby and thin mustache, which he clings to despite all our mockery. So Broberg instituted one last mockery--we will all have mustaches in a few days superior to his humble "dirt lip."

9 Mar 03

An Echo Company Marine negligently discharged his SAW (squad automatic weapon) in the next tent this morning. No one was hurt. He is now facing a court-martial at the hands of the division CG (commanding general) with a likely reduction of rank and possible brig time. Poor devil. His punishment for negligently discharging his SAW into the floor of his tent was deferred until after the invasion, when the battalion wisely elected to take no formal action.

Today we rolled our watches back three hours from local to Zulu time (Greenwich Mean Time). This is done for operational reasons.

The MEF (Marine expeditionary force) commander, Lt. Gen. Conway, spoke to RCT 1. He stood on an amtrac (a flat-bottomed military vehicle that moves on tracks on land or water) and spoke into a microphone so the 4,000 or so Marines could hear. He talked about how Marines fight, how to master fear, and how to behave once in Iraq. As he was finishing a point about the advantages of operating in a Marine Air-Ground Task Force with organic air assets, two AV8-B Harriers flew over at about 200 feet. One looped and they arched upward. As we watched them fly away four Cobra attack helicopters abreast of each other came in at 100 feet on a low attack run to let us see what our enemies might see. The Cobras approached so low and fast that there was almost no warning. Our enemies won't see much.

Gen. Conway said that the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division near Basra just learned that they are facing the Marines. He said, "Imagine what Hajji said when he learned that he will be facing the Marines in a few days time. He probably said, 'Abuba Belushi!' Which is Arabic for 'Ain't that a Bitch! The Marines.' " It was all fine and motivating.

13 Mar 03

Two days ago Gen. Mattis spoke to the battalion. He gave operational details about the allied advance on Baghdad. And he gave very frank answers to questions on any topic. He told us we will be given priority status when units queue up for rotation home after the war ends.

Mail still arrives only slowly, but I have been more fortunate than most receiving several pieces so far while others have received none.

The platoon walked the mile over to the Fifth Marines LSA (Logistics Support Area) yesterday to use their showers. That, and a clean shift of underwear and uniform, restored a degree of civilization. But tonight another stumble-around-and lie-in-the-dirt exercise is scheduled so the shower effect will be quite destroyed.

14 Mar 03

Delays could keep us in this camp for some time. The U.N., that cesspool of anti-U.S. sentiment, is doing its utmost to foil the U.S. Their primary objective or strategy is apparently to maroon Cpl. Taylor in this desert until the sun kills him or Gen. Conway takes the First Marine Division back to California.

Today Staff Sgt. Ivers burst into the chow tent and boomed, "Second Platoon you're done eating breakfast. Go back to the house!" Chief Warrant Officer Tomka was in a rage because he had mismanaged the Regimental Guard schedule and there was no one queued up to relieve Echo Company. So Fox Company Second Platoon got whipped into its gear and hustled out to the perimeter posts. And that's how things go in the Marines. Someone shows his ass on the job and covers it up by blasting someone else.

It is all one though. We were scheduled to stand those posts tomorrow anyway. I sat at pillbox six, a pile of sandbags covered with a camo net, for six hours. I sat with Garrard and we chatted each other up for the whole time about wives, kids, boats, motorcycles, war, officers, promotion, demobilization and other Marines. Garrard is a rare gem.

16 Mar 03

It is Sunday and there is no significant training scheduled. The SAW gunners and their assistants may go out this evening and burn off some rounds.

Yesterday Fox Company had a fire team competition. We ran from station to station in the heat of the afternoon with assault gear on, performing infantry tasks at each stop. At one station we had to disassemble and reassemble weapons, at another treat a simulated casualty and call for medevac. At another we were tested on vehicle recognition and weapons recognition. We gave NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons) flash reports and performed prisoner searches. There were others.

Final results are not in but I hear we did not win. We topped all the Second Platoon teams though and placed highly in the company.

Last night we marched out as a company for night movement exercises. Coordinating the movement of a company formation in the night is difficult. The exercise was primarily for the platoon commanders who need practice controlling 40 men dispersed across the sand.

17 Mar 03

The time is 11:15 Zulu and Sgt. McMullen just passed word that at 1500 we will be loading our sea bags into the Conex boxes (for storage in Kuwait). Presumably this is in preparation for crossing the line of departure. I will enclose this journal in my bag at that time and take a blank one with me. There is a chance that we won't get our bags back--ever. I hope that isn't the case, as I want my journal and all the other contents of my bag.

The battalion is getting ready to publish its frag order (short for "fragmentary"; an update to a standing operations order). Our initial mission is changed.

I love my family. I long to see my wife. I long to play with my children. I am positively desperate to see and hold John Byron. God keep each of them.

(Next week: Part 2--Into Iraq.)

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/btaylor/?id=110004602
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A MARINE'S JOURNAL PART 2



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