March 10, 2003

15th MEU members would fight under British command

By Gordon Lubold and C. Mark Brinkley
Times staff writers

CAMP BULLRUSH, Kuwait — If bullets start flying in Iraq, the 2,100 members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit will find a British general calling their shots.
For the first time, U.S. Marines are poised to go into battle under the command of British Royal Marines, an apparent goodwill gesture to the Brits for being such good blokes in standing by the U.S. government in building a coalition against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“Politically, it’s very good,” said Lt. Rob Driscoll, a spokesman for the British Navy, standing in his green beret in this dust-blown camp. “But it’s a huge tick in the box of the British Marines.”

There are difficulties. The two forces use different weapons and vehicles, and the Americans have had to make some adjustment to the British chow. (Fish heads and rice draw special contempt).

And then, of course, there is the age-old problem that has always dogged these two close allies, forever separated by a common language. For instance, the Brits refer to their berets as “berries,” trucks are lorries and on the radios and where the U.S. Marines say “over” to indicate a break in the transmission, the Royal Marines are likely to give a reply and end it with “ovo.”

“It’s hard to understand sometimes,” said Gunnery Sgt. Faustino Lopez, Jr., of Corpus Christi, Texas. “You can’t make out if it’s an O or an R.”

The Marine Corps and the Royal Marines have long historical ties, and regularly train and deploy alongside each other. The Marine Corps trades one of their officers for one from the Royal Marines in a two-year training exchange program, for example, and a commando unit — roughly equivalent to a battalion — assisted coalition forces in Afghanistan.

That unit, 45 Commando, remains there, so the Royal Marines are using the 15th MEU as the missing leg to their 3 Commando Brigade, Driscoll said.

“The 15th MEU has actually been attached to us as fourth command,” he said. “It’s quite an historical event.”

In fact, according to retired Maj. Mark Bentinck, Royal Marine historian, it’s unprecedented. “There may have been a brief time in Korea,” he said. “But that wasn’t planned, it didn’t last long and it involved very few men, perhaps a company. Nothing like this.”

The 3 Commando, led by British Royal Marine Brig. Gen. James Dutton, will in turn fall under I Marine Expeditionary Force, the Camp Pendleton-based Marine unit in charge of overall Marine operations in Kuwait.

Since late January when they arrived here, the Royal Marines have had little to do.

“We’re just kicking dust,” said Lt. Mike Postgate, a Royal Marine who visited Bullrush March 7 from the neighboring site, Camp Gibraltar, where many of the Royal Marines live.

The Royal Marines – their recruiting motto is “99.99 percent need not apply” – are the British Navy’s tough amphibious infantry.

While there are differences, each is slowly finding out more about the other as the long days pass here. For example, the lowest ranking Royal Marines are called, simply enough, “Marine.” The next step up is Lance Corporal. In the U.S. Marine Corps there are two ranks below lance corporal: private and private first class.

Another difference: Officers can join the Royal Marines at age 18 as long as they can get selected, whereas U.S. Marine officers must graduate from college.

Sgt. Patrick Love, a radio operator from Dallas, was floored when a Royal Marine told him that the British often sign up for initial contracts of 20 years or more, though they aren’t always locked in and usually can leave the service early. In contrast, the basic Marine enlistment must be renewed every four years.

Otherwise, their missions are similar. Royal Marines are a light infantry that can deploy on the drop of a shilling. Four days after being told they had to leave for Kuwait, in mid-January, the Royal Marines were headed here. That’s in stark contrast to the British Army, which received notice on the same day and only just arrived here in early March, Driscoll said.

The Royal Marines packed their kits light and brought little to the fight in the way of logistics resources and equipment. The brigade brought only a handful of “BVs,” their tracked combat vehicle, Land Rovers, two kinds of utility helicopters and artillery.

The Royal Marines are providing logistics support to the MEU, cooking the two hot meals U.S. Marines are eating here each day.

Such a change in field fare normally would be a huge bonus for the Americans, but instead, many U.S. Marines are begging for their own prepackaged, often-disliked field rations known as Meals, Ready to Eat or MREs.

The Brits are providing a lot of yogurt, bread and potatoes, along with a variety of meats and sausages. The fish heads and rice entrée drew groans from the U.S. troops during a recent dinner, and the other meats have earned colorful, often coarse nicknames, including an unprintable reference to camels.

“It tastes like deer meat,” said Lance Cpl. Daymond Geer, an infantryman with Battalion Landing Team 2/1 from Sacramento, Calif. To be fair, though, Geer said he loves the pineapple juice.

The differences are enough to bring out the entrepreneur in many of the Brits, who are quick to visit the American camps.

“They like to trade, a lot,” said Cpl. Jonathan Cumming, an infantryman with Battalion Landing Team 2/1 from Mission Viejo, Calif. Typically up for grabs are British berets and t-shirts bearing the logos of various Royal Marine units.

Usually, the Brits want the U.S. Marine poncho liners and fighting knives, deals the U.S. Marines are loathe to make.

But a deal can be struck, especially when a British head scarf is on the table. Issued to the Royal Marines, the wraps are similar to the traditional headgear worn by Muslims in many of the nearby towns and are perfect for blocking the dust and the wind.