U.S. troops weary of the wait

Marines: After weeks in the Kuwaiti desert, soldiers are impatient to go across the Iraqi border - or go home.

March 15, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP GRIZZLY, Kuwait - The news report crackled over Lt. Brendan Quigley's shortwave radio after dinner late Thursday night: The United States would consider pushing back the deadline for Iraq to disarm and give more time for diplomacy.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "It may conclude tomorrow. It may continue into next week."

A collective sigh of disgust, a few groans followed by a long string of creative expletives, spread out across the dusty officers' tent of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

It appeared to be another delay and more uncertainty in what has been more than a month of delays and uncertainty for the Marines.

Here at this desert camp about 30 miles south of the Iraqi border, members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., were some of the first U.S. forces to arrive in Kuwait. They have spent weeks in the bitterly cold desert nights and run under the blistering Persian Gulf heat. They have learned Arabic phrases. They have studied maps and diagrams of their battle plans. They are so accustomed to chemical and biological warfare drills that they can wear their gas masks while hiking, at dinner or shooting a rifle.

But the one thing they can't train for is the chaos, the questions of diplomacy surrounding the Iraq crisis. After weeks in the Kuwaiti desert, these Marines are impatient to go across the Iraqi border - or go home.

"There's too much up in the air right now," says Staff Sgt. Robert Casey, who keeps an eye on the many Camp Grizzly betting pools to predict whether war is at hand.

"It used to be that we were betting on three things: if we are going to go, when we are going to go and when we would be back home," he said. "Now we just bet on whether we are going to go at all."

"It looks to me like we won't go," Casey predicted. But, he adds: "We'll be happy to go back to our families. We'll be happy to go across the border and do our job."

Since their return from three weeks of desert training, members of the battalion have spent their days here at Camp Grizzly, where 6,000 Marines live in a collection of dozens of white revival meeting-like tents arranged in tidy rows. Everyone sleeps on plywood floors.

Each day in camp is indistinguishable from the one before. The Marines wake at 6 a.m. They sweep the dust off their clothes. They march to the chow hall. They exercise. They review training. They blow dust off their weapons. They march to dinner. They brush the dust off their corner of the tent. They read. Some play cards. Some just disappear under their sleeping bags into a deep sleep.

One of the few breaks in the monotony is a shower - one a week. Another bright spot in the day is to open up a ready-to-eat meal and discover a bag of M&Ms or jalapeno cheese - precious commodities in a camp where the menu is about as dreary as the landscape. Better yet, they might get a letter or package from home - although mail delivery is weeks behind.

"They've been frustrated. We have to keep them on their toes," said 2nd Lt. Adrian Heath, who led members of India Company on a training exercise yesterday to freshen their skills handling Iraqi prisoners of war.

To combat boredom and complacency, Heath keeps his Marines training and reviewing lessons they've already learned. They studied with an Arabic language instructor who taught them how to say "Stop!"; "Don't move!" "Weapons down!"; even the Iraqi slang for "What's up?" Many Marines have taped lists of these key phrases to the butts of their rifles for quick reference.

"One of the biggest lessons we learned was that when you set an Iraqi down, you can't set them on their knees. That's a sign that they're about to be executed," said Heath, 24.

Now the Marines practice setting the prisoners down so they sit cross-legged.

The Marines have also used their time in Kuwait to demystify many of the fears surrounding chemical and biological weapons that may lie across the border.

When the Marines first arrived, the threat of the chemical warfare frightened them so much that some were reluctant to take off their masks even after the drills were over.

"It's one thing fighting bullets. It's another fighting something you can't see, smell or hear," said Pfc. Eric Shelvy, 19, from St. Louis, Mo.

More than a month later, the training has become so routine that no one is rattled by the call of "Gas! Gas! Gas!" They have trained to fight through any chemical or biological attacks.

"They don't have any doubt that their equipment will work properly. It's just going to make things hotter and sweatier," said India Company Commander Capt. Ethan Bishop of Moscow, Idaho. Bishop has had his Marines go on 3-mile runs and practice shooting their rifles while wearing their gas masks.

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