November 11, 2006
At Dusty Outpost in Iraq, Cake Is Cut for Marines Young and Not So Young

OUTPOST VIKING, Iraq, Nov. 10 — Capt. James W. Mingus faced another platoon of his marines. They stood in their fire-retardant uniforms, wearied and hungry, weapons slung across their chests and backs.

A birthday cake was on the table in front of them. One piece had been cut out with a bayonet.

The captain, 37 and the oldest marine in the rifle company he commands, had just given that piece to the platoon’s youngest marine, Lance Cpl. T. J. McDowell, who is 20.

“Two hundred and thirty-one years,” the captain said.

“Tradition. This is what makes us different. This is what sets us apart.”

The Marine Corps celebrated its 231st birthday on Friday, an event that passes with little notice outside the corps’s insular ranks, but is an essential ritual within, especially now, as the policies guiding the war seem certain to change and the reasons that brought the marines here are less clear.

No matter the changes in Washington, here in this forward base in Anbar Province, Company F, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines marked the day with the same insistence on ceremony that surrounds marines from their first seconds before an enraged drill instructor to the folded flag at the grave.

As each platoon came in from their duties on patrol or manning posts at Outpost Viking’s walls, a ceremony repeated itself: a reading of a traditional birthday message from 1921, a reading of a message from the current commandant and then the cake, passed symbolically from one generation to the next.

“When were you born, Graham?” a marine called out, just before one platoon’s cake-cutting ceremonies began.

Cpl. Jeremy L. Graham, who had hit four bombs in three months while riding in vehicles, and who was blasted once more on a foot patrol, answered without a pause: “1775,” he said, using the year that the Marine Corps first took up arms, in a Pennsylvania tavern.

Every year, and everywhere, it is the same, even now.

The graying marines remind marines who are new to shaving: You are part of an outfit, storied and bloodied, that is older than the nation it serves. You are one of us. Pass it on.

In peacetime it can be poignant, as the ceremony, held in veteran halls and bases, invariably attracts veterans from several generations and wars.

In Outpost Viking, which is little more than a sandbagged fortress ringed by an insurgency that hounds the marines at each turn, Captain Mingus and his noncommissioned officers needed few words. The youngest marines here already know much of what veterans tell; there are 22-year-olds on their third combat tours.

Second Battalion, Eighth Marines has been in Iraq on this rotation for a little more than three months.

Nearly 15 percent of the battalion’s marines have been wounded. Five marines and one of their interpreters have been killed and 31 marines have been wounded seriously enough to require evacuation back to the states.

Each week, the number of wounded climbs. On Thursday, an improvised explosive struck a vehicle in the battalion’s Weapons Company, sending shrapnel into the right leg of Lance Cpl. William J. Thorpe and shattering Lance Cpl. Daniel B. Nicholson’s face.

(The week before, Lance Corporal Nicholson had said a prayer for the recovery of another marine, Lance Cpl. Colin Smith, who had been shot through the head. Now, Lance Corporal Nicholson was in a military hospital in Germany, with the others praying for him.)

Captain Mingus told the marines to observe this day every year, no matter where they were. “If you have two marines in a fighting hole somewhere, find a Twinkie, cut it in half and say, ‘Happy birthday, marine,’ ” he said.

The hearty greetings belied an underlying unease that these men confront each day, and it was noticeable in what was left unsaid. There was little talk on Friday of saving Iraq. And there was a message implicit in the older marine’s words.

Gradually, as months and tours have passed here, blending into years inside a country that has slipped out of everyone’s control, the list of reasons for fighting has changed. First it shifted from finding weapons of mass destruction to removing a dictator to building a stable, democratic Iraq.

Eventually, when talk of stability in Iraq gave way to questions of whether the spasms of sectarian violence could be properly called a civil war, the marines’ reasons for fighting shrank further, down to more basic things.

The captain and the others who spoke steered wide of politics, but that wide steer was noticeable. They spoke instead of fundamental sentiments, those that have always been first and last on a marine’s list of reasons to fight.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and almost four years after the troops prepared to invade Iraq, many of the marines in the battalion, in their quiet times in the weeks before this day, have said they fight for two things: the corps’s tradition and reputation, and for the man on their left and right.

Their Iraq is a land of dangers and deceptions, an endless test and a daily set of deadly traps. Each marine’s own future can feel like an abstraction when a patrol is heading out. It is difficult to see the hidden bombs. It is harder still to see the future of Iraq, or how any of this might end.

Friday was the birthday. Each of the marines stepped into the line, just as they always do.

Five times, the cakes were cut with bayonets and pieces handed out. Then the marines filed through a field kitchen and were served lobster, steak, crab legs and shrimp. Even the exhausted smiled, leaning against blast walls designed to keep out the frequent mortar fire.

Many were bedecked with charms, a collection that provided a measure of how deeply into the combat culture these young marines had already passed. The charms were small keepsakes, often not obvious, taken from churches, homes or firefights and designated as talismans of luck.

Lance Cpl. Elijah D. Henry, from North Carolina, came for his cake. He wore a big knife. Its handle was carved from the antlers of the first deer he killed, a six-point whitetail he shot at his uncle’s deer camp in southern Georgia.

He is half Irish and half Cherokee. In his pocket was a small leather bag with more charms, 100-year-old tobacco — grown by the oldest living Cherokee, he said — along with a pinch of sage, a ruby, dirt from every country he has ever visited and a shell from the 21-gun salute for his late grandfather, who was a P.O.W. in World War II.

“I guess you heard about my squirrel tails?” he said.

“I get them blessed and hand them out to my friends.”

So far, he said, he had handed out five.

Cpl. Daniel M. Greenwald, from Rockland County, N.Y. passed through the line. He had threaded a dog-tag chain through the mangled remains of a Kalashnikov bullet, which on Sept. 2 hit him on the helmet and knocked him flat.

His head was soaked in blood from the impact of the helmet on his forehead, but the Kevlar kept the bullet out. Now he carries the broken bullet wherever he goes, hoping that bullets, like proverbial lightning, will not strike twice.

The battalion commander arrived and said that the battalion’s snipers had just shot three Iraqi men who were burying a bomb beside a bridge near Saqlawiya, a town not far away.

One of the insurgents was killed instantly, he said.

The other two had been wounded, and had stumbled off into the marsh and reeds. Marines were out following their blood trails, a birthday spent on the job.