View Full Version : Talk fills Marines' long hours

08-09-06, 03:21 PM
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Columnist reports on Iraq: Talk fills Marines' long hours

BARWANAH, Iraq - It's a hot, torpid July morning on the outskirts of this town by the Euphrates River in western Al Anbar province. And Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment are watching, and waiting – and talking.

The Marines are on an overwatch and QRF, or quick reaction force, mission, standing by to respond in case trouble breaks out anywhere in the town. It is not particularly exciting work. The hours drag by, the flies buzz around, the sun beats down relentlessly. Aboard a 7-ton "gun truck," a massive, six-wheeled armored vehicle, there are a half-dozen Marines in full battle gear – flak vests, helmets, weapons locked and loaded.

They come from all over. There's Stuart Bowie, 23, a former construction worker from Lafayette, La. – and a descendant, he says, of Jim Bowie of knife and Alamo fame. There's Corey Barrows, 24, a former hockey player from Orlando, Fla., and Chris Hollingsworth of Cincinnati, a former preschool teacher who at age 26 is the old man of the group.

There's Matthew Wargo, 21, of Longmont, Colo., who only recently returned to duty after being injured in an IED attack that left his Humvee a twisted wreck. There's Michael Whitaker, 22, a former delivery-truck driver from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Carl Barney, 20, of Queens, N.Y.

They are all lance corporals, junior enlisted men who are on their first hitches in the corps. If the officers are the brains of the Marine Corps, and the NCOs the backbone, these lance corporals and others like them are the muscle, the guys who actually do the work – even if it's only waiting and watching.

And while they work at waiting, they smoke, and scratch, and sweat, and talk.

They talk about the things all young men talk about, but with a difference. They talk about girls, and various features of girls, and about sports, and about cars they've had, or wished they'd had, and then about girls again, girls they've known or wished they'd known.

But they also talk about things that their civilian counterparts back home will never know – about firefights and IEDs and mortar attacks, and about the time that crazy buddy of theirs came under sniper fire in his gun turret and grabbed a watermelon and drew a face on it with a Magic Marker and propped it up in his turret as a target. They talk about the enemy, the insurgents, officially known as the AIF, or anti-Iraqi forces, but whom the Marines call simply "bad guys," or "criminals," and whom they despise far more than they fear.

As they laugh and talk, I listen, and I wonder. I wonder why they chose to be here, why they joined the Marines, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world, when they knew full well it would be a ticket to the war zones. When I ask them that question, I get the same answers I've heard hundreds of times over the years from young Marine infantrymen, "grunts" like these.

And yet, the repetition doesn't diminish the sincerity.

"I felt it was, like, my duty."

"I wanted to make a difference."

"I wanted to serve my country, and I wanted to be the best of the best" – which is to say, the Marines. "Anybody's who's got any backbone ought to be here."

And so on, and so on. They are young and earnest, and they mean every word. Only one, the streetwise kid, takes another posture.

"Why'd I join the Marines? 'Cause I got in trouble."

I ask them what they think of the war, and again, it's the usual heartfelt sentiments about helping these people, the Iraqis, to have a better life. As for dissent about the war back home, for these kids, right now, in this place, the dissent seems far away and largely irrelevant.

"You try not to pay attention to it," Wargo says. "It doesn't change the fact that you're over here and that you gotta do what you gotta do. But I think there's a lot of support back home. I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten, from people I don't even know, thanking us for what we're doing. It keeps our morale high."

But the streetwise kid is having none of it.

"This whole war's retarded," he says. "We shouldn't be here. What are we doin' – we're rebuilding Iraq when we ain't even rebuilt New Orleans? We should be takin' care of our own first. Why we gotta be the world police?"

"'Cause we're the most powerful country in the world," says Bowie. "We're the only ones who can do it."

But the streetwise kid persists.

"Y'all think America's so moral and (stuff)," he says. "But America's done some shady (stuff)."

"America's a good country," Bowie says, with conviction and finality.

"I'm not sayin' it ain't a good country," the kid says, a little defensively. "I'm just saying it ain't as good as it was back in the day."

"It's a complicated situation," says Barrows, a cool, taciturn, good-looking kid that the others respect and listen to. "I think we make a difference. We do a lot over here." Then he adds, "Unfortunately, a lot of the local populace doesn't seem to care."

"We stay here long enough it'll change," Bowie says.

"We stay here we'll be fightin' these people forever," the streetwise kid shoots back. "We oughta just drop a atom bomb on this whole blankin' country."

That shocks Bowie's sense of decency.

"You can't do that," he says, truly offended. "You can't just kill innocent people."

Expletive, says the streetwise kid.

They argue for a while longer, but it's tiring in the heat. The talk dies away, they get lost in their own thoughts and dreams.

Finally the day fades, and the order comes down to RTB – return to base. The gun truck and the Humvees rumble back through the streets of the town to Lima Company's FOB, or forward operating base, a heavily sandbagged outpost where the grunts will have a chance to grab some hot chow before they head out again on a night mission.

The Marines are quiet on the way back to the FOB, alert to the constant danger of IEDs.

They've talked enough.