Death and Other Vital Topics as Marines Prepare for Invasion of Iraq

New York Times

Captain Hamilton, 30, of Houston, who has never experienced war, apologized briefly at the outset for the subject matter and then matter-of-factly presented the battalion’s plan for casualties.

The battalion has ordered small bags for the men to carry to collect a dead marine’s personal effects. “If we don’t get those, everybody’s carrying zip-locks,” the officer said.

Each man should carry his personal items in the cargo pocket of his trousers, which will be cut open and quickly emptied if he is killed. Two dog tags, one around the neck and one in a boot. Four dead marines are considered a mass casualty, with its own mortality team. Chemical attack casualties (“dirty” corpses) bring yet another team.

Dead Iraqis are to be searched for military items, like maps. “No trophies or anything like that,” Captain Hamilton said. If the marines must bury them, they are to do so with their heads pointing southwest, toward Mecca. “Some of this is just Geneva Convention, and some of this is just common sense and doing the right thing,” Captain Hamilton said.

While the world awaits another United Nations deadline for Iraq to disarm, the marines of Task Force Tarawa are waiting for word from their commander in chief to get rolling. On Wednesday another set of officers gathered around a flag-size map, duct taped to plywood and planned, to the minute, the first few days after an H-hour that has not come.

One officer in charge of sorting intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency, satellites and Kuwaiti spies stood and with a pointer tapped the map where sources had reported Iraqis building sandbag bunkers beside highways.

Another officer indicated a 1-kilometer square on the map, close to the Iraqi border, and reported a recent sighting: “A guy on a motorcycle stopped and buried something,” he said, pointing. Little pieces of red tape indicate troop positions, either with vehicles or merely knots of soldiers (“straight legs”). There are extensive plans for handling prisoners as well as accepting troops that drop their arms and denounce Saddam Hussein.

The task force is named for Tarawa, a Pacific island that was the site of a bloody World War II battle, and the battalion is made up of a patchwork of East Coast units. It takes half an hour to jog the perimeter of this flat town of canvas and parked steel, where 4,000 marines sleep 10 to a tent on cots or plywood or on the sand. There are rows of trucks capable of dragging seven tons through the sand, tanks, 16,000-pound Howitzer cannons and crates of ammunition.

The wait is grueling for the troops. There is an uncomfortable difference between being ready and staying ready.

On Wednesday more than 500 marines from the artillery battalions assembled at 7 a.m. and ran the perimeter, more for something to do than for the benefit of the workout. Even at that relatively cool hour, a handful of marines fell out of formation, dehydrated. Winter is ending.

“Get your letters written, make sure your body’s ready to move out, your gear’s ready to move out and your buddy’s ready to move out,” Lt. Col. Glenn Starnes, the commanding officer here, told the troops panting after the run.

Then, he said, in so many words, let’s go get Saddam.

The men cheered, then returned to their tents to sit around.

Mechanics perform constant preventive maintenance on the artillery, wiping sand from the Howitzer sights. The men practice donning protective gear in the event of a chemical attack.

At the call of “Gas! Gas! Gas!” they rip masks from pouches strapped to their thighs and pull them over their heads before taking their next breath. They have tied the hoods of their ponchos into little knots, to drape the plastic over their bodies if there is not time to climb into protective suits.

Malaria pills are to be distributed 48 hours before H-hour, for duty in the marshy swamps near the Euphrates River. “They dump pollution right into the river,” a young doctor told the meeting. “Their rivers are nasty. If you get wet, expect to get diarrhea. If you eat local food, expect to get diarrhea.”

The officers planning a possible attack have already established the order of the vehicles as they cross the border and where they will stop to refuel.

But then the “Voice of America” came on the radio after lunch, with the seemingly daily announcements of possible extensions to the Monday deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq to disarm. Officers sprawled on cots shouted curses.

“I don’t even want to talk about it,” said Lt. Matt Neely, pulling a stool and a crossword puzzle from an old copy of The Stars and Stripes out into the sun. “That’s the worst thing in the world any of us can hear right now.”

The marines take pride in living less comfortably than the soldiers, sailors and pilots assembling in the Middle East. They are allowed shower time only once every four days. They use portable toilets and water from tanks, washing their laundry with powdered detergent in metal buckets. There are no telephones to call home, and mail arrives sporadically. Some smoke cigarettes; more use chewing tobacco, spitting into empty water bottles. They drink water all day but try to stop by 6 p.m., so they do not have to get up in the night.

Most marines have begun wearing bulletproof vests and helmets to get used to the added weight. They plan to travel even lighter than they arrived, leaving behind narrow cots and other personal effects in big storage containers.

Lieutenant Neely, 25, is like many marines in Task Force Tarawa. He got the call on New Year’s Eve, on his cell phone on the way to a party with his girlfriend in North Carolina.

“She was like, `What was that phone call?’ Even though she knew the answer,” he said.

Lt. Josh Cusworth, 28, from Richland, N.C., was at home that same day when his phone rang. He was granted permission to fly to California four days later for his long-planned wedding but was told to hurry back.

“I was having a good time, but it was going to end in a few days,” he recalled. “I got home and started packing.”

They made the trip overseas on seven ships, arriving a month later in mid-February. During the voyage they received inoculations for smallpox and anthrax.

Six of the ships are still in the region, which gives some hope.

“The quicker it gets started, the quicker it’s all over,” Lieutenant Neely said.

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