Day 3 - Kuwaiti Desert
I can't get the sand out of my hair. Last night, we camped under the stars in the Kuwaiti desert along with the 5th Marines "Grizzly Brigade" at Grizzly Range. We were just a few miles from the Iraqi border — so close, in fact, that you could see the glow of Iraq's oil refineries at night. The sky was beautiful, a theater of light and clouds at sunset, a horizon that spread as far as the eye could see, and at night, polished stars and satellites spun overhead. Then came the gale-force winds and the sandstorm.
The Marines didn't mind it that much — for them it was just one more rifle-cleaning exercise. For Megan, Biz, Tone and I, it was a giant pain in the ass. We woke up picking dirt out of our ears and spitting grit out of our mouths. Welcome to field life for America's ultramodern fighting force. (Click for pictures of Gideon's Kuwait photo diaries.)
Two weeks ago, Megan and I spent five days getting "combat training" at Camp Barrett Marine Base in Quantico, Virginia, in preparation for our trip out here to the sand dunes (see "War Reporter Boot Camp — Gideon's Better Prepared, But Still Praying"). Unlike the bulk of the journalists who have come to Kuwait, we won't be embedding with the troops for the length of the campaign (that is, if the United States and its allies go to war with Iraq). That means that we won't be able to watch how this (hypothetical) war affects the young men who fight it. If anything, what we are after is a snapshot of Marines life now.
Almost all of the Marines we talked to are combat virgins, outside of the scores of kills they may have racked up playing video games. They are young — 74 percent of the Corps is 22 or younger, many are married, engaged or have children, and they believe strongly in their training and in each other. One of the questions I kept asking was, "Are you scared?" and I kept getting the same answer. Not some piece of Marines spin, just an honest "No, I've been well trained, I trust my gear and I'll be fighting with Marines."
While at Quantico, we met many young Marines in officer candidate school — recent college graduates who will be leading the squads. Today, we got a chance to hang with the grunts, the young men who have enlisted and who are likely to be the first Americans to cross into Iraq, if there is a second Gulf War. Their lives aren't easy — they live in the field, sleeping under the stars to prepare for life at war. Showers are rare. Meals are all prepackaged MRE's (meals-ready-to-eat), cuisine roughly on par with standard airplane food. Daily life consists of training, training and more training: shooting targets, running drills, throwing grenades and PT. There is barely any contact with the outside world aside from snail mail, which takes the better part of two weeks to get to them. The squads become a universe unto themselves, young men just out of high school who have entrusted their lives to the advice of their gunnery sergeants, and to their equipment.
This week was special for the Marines at Grizzly Range, as they were just issued special scopes to attach to their M16s. These precision optics showed impressive detail, helping their rifles up their accuracy. But with the special optics comes a hidden cost — the ability to watch the damage up close. "Our sergeant said he once shot someone from 500 yards and he could hear him screaming," said PFC Agee, a 19-year-old from Maryland. "That's the biggest thing for me, if I hit someone and they don't die. Gunny [nickname for their Gunnery Sergeant] said those guys come back and visit you in your dreams."
"Get right with God now," was the advice I overheard as the 5th Marines prepared for a nighttime target exercise. "You don't want to be thinking about that in the field. If you get distracted you put other Marines at risk." It is a heavy emotional toll that these young men must bear in the coming weeks.
The Marines are all curious to know whether or not they are supported back at home, whether or not their fellow Americans care about what they put up with and what they do for their country. They have all heard stories about the mass protests this weekend and they keep pressing me for information I don't have. I tell them that there are people at home who take issue with the need for this war, and the speed with which the president is determined to execute it. But I also point out that polls consistently show most Americans in support of a war in the Gulf. The Marines take comfort in that. "What I hope people at home understand is that we are doing this so that they have the right to protest and be free. That's one right the Iraqis don't have," said PFC Crampton, from upstate New York.
These Marines are not the brutal stereotype drummed up in Hollywood. In fact, the new scopes are a breath of comfort for this squad because they will cut down on civilian casualties. Many fear — far more than their own demise — that they will accidentally shoot a woman or child. "That is absolutely some sh-- I cannot handle!" Agee said with a nervous laugh.
But not all of the Marines on our two-day visit to the Iraqi border are field training. The bulk of the camp (which is 6,000 to 8,000 strong) live in huge tent barracks and have access to limited hot water and electricity. Their lives are the old military maxim of "hurry up and wait." Downtime is spent playing football or spades, writing letters and waiting for the kickoff of the Baghdad 500 — as they affectionately call their race to the Iraqi capitol.
I will leave it to the other journalists who are embedded to take it from here and watch what happens to these young men. But I also left the Marine base with a score of e-mails. I have to decided to be pen pals with some of them, to see how their lives change from here on out.
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