'Lost battalion' of Marines still holding hill in Kuwait

April 28, 1991|By Edward A. Gargan | Edward A. Gargan,New York Times News Service

KUWAIT CITY -- On Hill 99 somewhere west of this capital, perspiration glistened on Duane McGary's forehead as he crouched over and squeezed into his "hooch," a hole scooped in the sand covered by a heavy green tarpaulin.

"I dug this out on Feb. 28," he said. "Been here ever since." His large fingers moved over his possessions, caressing the remaining tangible reminders of a world beyond this hill: a small clock, a Bible, a favorite cup.

"And these here," he said as he touched a cork-sized borehole in the sand wall across from his cot, "those are ratholes. Don't worry, the rats only come out at night."

Corporal McGary and the roughly 1,000 other Marine reservists on Hill 99 consider themselves in effect the lost battalion of the Persian Gulf war.

They stormed into Kuwait Feb. 22, one day before the official start of the ground war against Iraq. In no time, as they tell it, they captured 230 Iraqi prisoners, swept north and on Feb. 28 triumphantly occupied Hill 99, in the process winning an award for best combat reserve unit.

They haven't moved since, slowly baking in the sun, hoping to go home but apparently neglected by the chain of command.

"We have no purpose," Corporal McGary said. "We have no ammunition. We call ourselves the lost boys."

"We really don't know what our mission is," lamented Maj. Joe Galdis, who had the words "Kuwait, Therefore I Wait" hand-lettered on his green T-shirt. "The colonel at regiment said we are here to hold a dagger at Saddam Hussein's throat. I think we're holding a volleyball at Saddam Hussein's throat. Three times they've told us we'd be home in seven to 14 days. They tell us this every seven to 14 days."

Part of the Marines' problem seems to be that nobody knows where they are. A public affairs officer for another group of Marines became confused when he tried to find Hill 99; only after getting directions did he manage to locate the desolate hill of sand.

More than half the 550,000 U.S. troops who were once in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and southern Iraq have now gone home. But on Hill 99, the prospects of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines' seeing the bayou country of Louisiana, from where many of them hail, seem to be receding.

In the nine weeks since they arrived, the Marines have made a gymnasium on a patch of sand, now littered with barbells made of a pole and either cement-filled buckets or natural gas bottles filled with sand. At midday, the gym was silent.

The Marines also excavated an open-air amphitheater from the hill, big enough to seat 250. A television and VCR that made it through the ground war just finished the 10th showing of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman."

A 2-mile-long sand berm circles Hill 99, marking the line beyond which the Marines cannot go.

Warrant Officer Dudley Garidel, a certified public accountant in the Lousiana Legislature, surveyed his hilltop and sighed: "The question is, why are we here? If we had a mission, we'd sit here till hell freezes over. But nobody believes we have a mission. The regular army is paid to do this. Why are the reserves doing this? Does it make any sense?"

In an act of desperation, the unit sent a small team to Kuwait City the other day to seek help.

Dana Deree, who in another life is a junior at Harding College in Searcy, Ark. -- "I should be a senior" -- looked slightly dazed as he stumbled into the Kuwait International Hotel, where the corridors and lounges were scenes of frenetic contract negotiations between foreign companies and Kuwaiti ministries, of journalists lugging equipment and of a restaurant that served ice with the soda.

"I can't believe it," the lance corporal said again and again. Every time he folded and unfolded his arms, his uniform puffed dust, a bit like a rug being beaten.

"I'm patriotic," he said, "but there's no reason why we should be sitting out there. I'm calling my congressman. That's Ray Thornton, 2nd District. . . . I'm using our democracy. Hopefully he can get us out of here."

Corporal Deree managed to get through to the congressman's legislative assistant, who said he would see what he could do. Summer is beginning its long siege here, with temperatures now hitting 115 degrees, soon to be well in the 140s.

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