A rest from war

WITH THE 1ST MARINE DIVISION, Iraq — And on the ninth day, the U.S. Marines rested.

A week and two days after entering Iraq, Marines fighting their way to Baghdad have outpaced their supply line. They’ve stopped in their tracks to wait for the food to catch up, as well as the water and fuel and ammunition.

That gave the young Marines of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine regiment a chance to relax a bit in the sunshine of early spring Friday. And they took full advantage of the chance.

Sitting in a muddy field that was fast drying out in the heat of the noonday sun, some of the Marines sat and smoked cigarettes. (Many of them hadn’t smoked before the war began.)

Others wrote in journals, filling page after page with the things they had seen since crossing into Iraq last Thursday in their amphibious assault vehicles.

A few others got a visit by the battalion commander, Lt. Col. John Mayer. Mayer, a sunburned, lanky fellow with one of those hardened Marine faces, moved among different groups of Marines, asking personal questions and telling them he was proud of them.

He said he was concerned that many of the young Marines might have been affected by the sight of civilian casualties several nights earlier. A group of assailants in a small convoy of vehicles had tried to crash through a checkpoint of the Marines’ advance column. The Marines blasted the convoy to pieces. In the process, six women and three children in the vehicles with the gun-toting assailants were injured.

“The bastards are using women and children as human shields to infiltrate,” Mayer said, shaking his head in disbelief. The young Marines nodded agreement and Mayer moved on.

Most of the Marines found a piece of shade beneath the scrawny bushes in the field and sat and chatted. You can learn a lot about the average Marine by listening to him shoot the breeze in the shade.

If the 1st Battalion is any indication, the average Marine in Iraq today is 19 or 20 years old. He has a girlfriend back home or maybe a wife. Maybe even a child. He came to the Corps right out of high school, or maybe after a semester or two of college. He doesn’t plan to stay in the Marines forever, just long enough to save money for college or until he figures out what he wants to do with his life.

He enlisted in the Marines either a couple of weeks before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2002, or a couple of weeks after. He worries that his mom is worrying about him, and he’s sad that he hasn’t received any mail from her in weeks. He has a million stories to tell about his crazy brothers and sisters.

At this point in the campaign, the average Marine also stinks. His clothes are caked in mud and dust, and he’s wearing the same underwear he was nine days ago.

His feet are in sad shape from wearing the same socks every day and sleeping with his boots on most nights. His butt is sore from sitting entire days on the hard benches of the assault vehicles.

His lips are chapped and cracked and bloody. He now knows the value of Chapstick. He has grown accustomed to the dismal flavor of the military rations, the so-called Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, known derisively as the Meals Rejected by the Enemy. He has learned that the tiny bottle of Tobasco sauce included in each ration packet can make almost anything taste better.

The average Marine also knows what he wants to do as soon as he gets back to the United States. He wants a steak. Or a chocolate milkshake. Or an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts. He wants to take a good long look at “real trees,” as opposed to the palm trees of southern Iraq. He wants to taste good coffee, drink ice-cold beer and sit on a soft couch that doesn’t benumb his butt.

And speaking of butts, he doesn’t know much about the finer points of geopolitics and international diplomacy, but the average Marine wouldn’t mind personally putting his boot in Saddam Hussein’s backside.

He likes to enjoy a day of rest from the war, but he also wants to get it on and get it over with. And he firmly believes the road home takes a dangerous but inevitable turn through Baghdad.

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