The road to Baghdad

They fought the enemy, the elements, sleeplessness and hunger. They are the Marines of India Company, and this is the story in pictures of their arduous drive through the sands of Iraq.

War in Iraq

April 20, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

The U.S. Marines divide themselves into two camps. Those who do the fighting are "grunts." Those who do not are "POGs," persons other than grunts.

POGs are the support element of the Marine Corps. To a grunt, a POG is anyone with access to a hot meal and a shower and at night beds down in a cot. They resupply the grunts with food, fuel and water. They make repairs. They perform the thousands of jobs that make fighting possible.

It is the grunts, however, who do the fighting, the killing and, most often, the dying. They consider themselves modern-day warriors.

These are the Marines who are the subject of the photos on these pages.

"Some people sell clothes. We fight. That's our job," says Cpl. Neil Knable, 23, of Elizabethtown, Pa.

Theirs is a job defined by long stretches of misery. At the worst moments grunts live like dogs, curled up in fighting holes, scrounging for meals when supplies run low, loping forward on little if any sleep.

The dirt and sand blacken their faces, working into their eyes, their ears, their nostrils and their skin. They shave, but it does little to keep their faces clean.

During the day, grunts are pressed inside amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs, like clowns in a miniature car. Twenty Marines squeeze into a space about the size of an office cubicle. Diesel fumes sting the eyes and throat. The vehicle bucks and rattles like a carnival ride.

A break in the monotony comes when the loading ramp yawns open and they are ordered to charge out and fight whatever may come their way.

During the war in Iraq, members of India Company 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines traveled more than 350 miles this way - leaving their base in Kuwait, crossing the Iraqi border and pushing north at a frantic pace all the way to Baghdad. It was one of the longest pushes inland made in Marine Corps history.

The loading ramp was lowered daily. A good day was measured not by the number of miles an AAV traveled, but whether the vehicle was as crowded at the end of the day as when it began. A tragic day - and there were a few - was when the Marines returned to find that because of an injury or death there was more space on board than before.

The history of this war has yet to be written. There is no doubt that air power will be remembered for the crucial role it played: the smart bombs tearing through Iraqi government ministries and palaces; the jet fighters terrifying Iraqi troops; the Cobra attack helicopters flying in figure eights above tanks and troop carriers before unleashing Hellfire missiles.

But members of India Company expect this war to be remembered for the contribution of the infantry, the foot soldier, the grunt.

According to the Marines, the company saw some of the closest fighting since the Vietnam War. Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary fighters were so close that Marines could look them in the eye. Near Salmon Pak, some members of the company fixed bayonets as they walked into the tall grasses of a farmer's field to enter a firefight.

Marines celebrate their misery with anyone who can appreciate it. Most of their families, their wives, their girlfriends do not understand. Many say they will not talk about what they saw during their 350-mile journey.

An Iraqi soldier may have a better understanding of their lives than most Americans, Marines say. Few people would understand what it's like to see a rocket-propelled grenade fired at you, to know there is a sniper trying to kill you but have no idea where he is, to sleep in a desert foxhole, shivering all night, then melting under the midday sun.

A Marine looking over the fighting holes and bunkers of the Iraqi soldiers noted the similarity of their living conditions, noted that in a different time and place, they would have stories to trade about the misery of being a grunt. But such friendships will have to wait.

"It's a case of kill or be killed," he said.

The grunts might tell their families how much they craved good food along the way. Marines can talk about meals as if they were foreign countries visited. They recall how cold the beer was, how the hamburger at such and such a restaurant has a beef patty bigger than their hands, that the smile on the waitress at the diner where the food was horrible was enough to make them want to go back.

Recruiting posters show thick-necked men in camouflage, muscles well-defined, uniform spotless, eyes staring ahead as if they could see through a wall. Maybe a few Marines fit that mold. The rest are as odd-looking as the rest of the civilian world. They are short and tall, muscular and scrawny.

They come from backgrounds as diverse as their accents. India Company included a Texan who worked as a florist for nearly a decade before joining the Marines. Another was a tap and jazz dancer, competing in Irish dance competitions until months before he exchanged his dance shoes for infantry boots.

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