For Marines off Afghanistan, the worst part is the wait

Aboard ship, soldiers train, exercise and study

War On Terrorism : The World

November 06, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS PELELIU - The Marine platoon commander knows war from classrooms and field maneuvers, history books and Hollywood movies.

What his men know of Afghanistan, they've mostly learned from their officers.

Yet together, the young platoon commander and his even younger charges in Bravo Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are beginning to confront what may lie ahead.

"Through all of our training we try to make it as realistic as possible," says 1st Lt. Don Faul, the brawny, blond-haired, 25-year-old platoon commander who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998. "But we can never replicate the horrors and emotional impact that war has. You can watch things like Saving Private Ryan, but it's not the same."

For now, though, the worst part is the waiting and uncertainty. The Marines are training and supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Since leaving Darwin, Australia, in a rush on Sept. 12, many of the Marines have remained cooped up on this amphibious assault ship cruising the Arabian Sea.

"We prepare our Marines so that if we have to go in - today, tomorrow, the next day - we'll be ready," Faul says. "But if we have to sit here for two more months, so be it."

The Marines have no shortage of ways to fill time.

For Faul and his platoon, days are spent performing calisthenics before dawn in the aircraft hangar bay, building muscle in the gym, working on their vehicles chained to a lower deck, and studying tactics. They run on the flight deck with rifles outstretched or above their head. They even run in their gas masks.

Faul and his men are trained to push forward, to scout, to be among the first to go to war, whether rooting out the enemy or providing perimeter security at an airfield. For now, they are at sea, clambering through corridors and hatches, waiting in chow lines, grabbing fresh air on the flight deck when Harrier jets aren't taking off or helicopters hovering overhead.

A junior officer like Faul shares a college dorm-size room with three others. They have bunk beds with blue curtains for privacy, two desks and two chairs, with showers and toilets down the hall.

By Marine standards, they're living grand.

Below decks, enlisted Marines such as those in Faul's platoon share space with as many as 300 people. Berths are 25 inches wide by 72 inches long, arranged in racks of four, with less than a foot of room between their pillow and the overhead bunk.

Faul's men are grouped in one area, close to a door, close to the lockers.

"It's crowded, but livable," says Lance Cpl. Sean Scheffler, 19, who is 2 inches taller than his bed, which is the second from the bottom - not exactly a prime spot, because Marines have about 3 feet between bunks in which to change clothes.

Their personal effects are kept in lockers the size of a small television. Space is so tight, they sleep with their gas masks. A hallway near the showers and toilets doubles as a space for computers and televisions, and for Marines lounging in chairs, on the floor or on metal boxes.

"When you're not working or eating, this is pretty much where you stay," says Lance Cpl. Joshua Eastling, 23, of Plainfield, Wis.

Still, they seem to thrive on the spartan Marine way at sea.

"When you think of the possible places we might be, it's not bad," Faul says. "Marines of World War II didn't have access to e-mail, the Internet, television. We have it relatively good.

"Does it wear on you every day? Yes," he says. "Will I be happy when our deployment is over and we're on solid ground? Yes."

Until then, he and his men deal with life at sea, sharing space with Navy sailors who run the ship.

"The Marines are here as passengers. It's our shop to take care of," says Chief Petty Officer Jerry Ring, 36, of Glen Burnie. "Their job is not on board, it's on the ground."

The young Marines say they really don't mind ship life. Bingo nights, bench-press contests and karaoke performances keep them occupied.

So does the gym, a home away from home, with free weights, cycles and treadmills. Marines are very big on protein supplements, with one young rifleman rooting through his locker to show off a protein powder, creatine drink and amino-acid supplement. He also had a stash of Oreo cookies.

But the focus is on terrorism. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Faul hit the books, reading about the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"The history gives us something to think about, gives us an advantage over the Soviets," he says. "We can learn from their mistakes. We can look at the techniques that failed."

And what do Faul's men know of Afghanistan?

"What we're told," says Eastling.

They say they're not afraid; moreover, they say they should not be underestimated.

"I've heard people say U.S. soldiers are young and inexperienced," says Lance Cpl. Adam Ray Brown, 21, of Grand Junction, Colo. "But we're the same Marines as the ones in World War II and Vietnam. As soon as they get us out there, we'll perform."

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