View Full Version : Long lines, impromptu Arabic lessons help kill time

03-14-03, 01:49 PM
March 14, 2003

Long lines, impromptu Arabic lessons help kill time

By John Bebow
The Detroit News

KUWAIT — The line forms even before the mobile PX trucks pull up to the undisclosed location of the sand-covered home of First Marine Division, Fifth Regiment.
Toward the back, two lance corporals are practicing Arabic.

“How do you say: ‘Lay your weapons down?’ ” asks Jason Smith, 21, from Wasilla, Alaska.

It sounds like “AIR-MAY-SA-LA-HECK!,” answers Lewis Foster, 20, from Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Smith says his favorite Arabic phrase is “KEF,” which means “Stop.” And the burly Alaskan says it’s just fine with him if this new desert war never starts.

“The guy who says he’s looking forward to war is freaking crazy,” Smith says.

On this day, these Marines who would be among the first U.S. troops to cross into Iraq do have something to look forward to: Pringles potato chips, Mars candy bars, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, fresh pouches of Red Man chew, paychecks and cigarettes.

“We’ve got 90 minutes,” Sgt. Maj. Ken Jones barks to his troops in a Texas drawl. “Grab your Gatorade and one food item and move on.”

There are more than 1,000 Marines in this battalion, and it seems like almost every one stands in line for the full hour and a half. A fresh sandstorm — not quite as strong as the whiteout the night before — starts to blind the camp as tanks roll by and CH-46 helicopters whir overhead.

Everything is sanded over beige here, except the colorful language of the troops and their sergeant major, who has a message for President Bush.

“Hurry up and get us out of here,” Jones says.

His message to the United Nations? “You can’t print that one,” he said.

Ninety-five percent of these Marines have never seen combat. They anticipate it with a mix of testosterone-spiced bravado and dark humor.

“Our job is to kill people, but we’ve never actually done our jobs!” says Pfc. Abraham McCarver, 20, from Memphis, Tenn. The joke breaks up the impromptu Arabic lesson in the PX line.

The mobile PX trucks bring Maxim magazine and The Marine Corps Times, but there’s little up-to-date news on the war drama playing out in the White House, the United Nations and the British Parliament. That talk is so far beyond these rifle-toters it hardly matters. And it’s not what they talk about in line.

“Is it true J-Lo and Ben Affleck were killed in a car wreck?” a Marine shouts out.

“Who won American Idol?”

“Who’s leading the Southeastern Conference in basketball?”

“We’ve been cutting back on our TV,” winks Smith, the Alaskan. “Too many distractions out here for that.”

Actually, there’s no TV anywhere near the sand-covered “hooch” — the tent Smith and his 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, call home. They have fashioned a chess set out of cardboard from a ready-to-eat military meal and plastic caps from water bottles.

“Sometimes we try playing football in the hooch,” Foster, the Alabaman says. “Last night, I broke a light with a pass.”

The disbursement desk at the PX will hand out $50,000 in tax-free battle pay today. The PX doesn’t come by often enough for the troops to spend the cash.

Inside, Lance Cpl. Joe Scogin picks up $32.50 worth of supplies: two packs of Red Man, a pack of Newport cigarettes, fresh boot insoles and a can of sardines “because you can’t get ’em anywhere else.”

He’s a TOW gunner. He can take out any enemy tank within 4,000 meters.

What about those around the world marching for peace?

“That’s their job, to hope for peace,” says Scogin, 24. “My job is to prepare for war. This is what I gotta do to get home to my wife and kid.”

Baghdad is the goal, Scogin’s boss says.

“You’ll be telling the story of how we run right through the enemy,” Jones says. “We’re expecting the worst, but we’ll just have to see. Anytime you attack someone else’s land, you expect a fight. Our guys understand we’re on the right. Those people over there in Iraq have suffered enough.”