Welcome to the Suck
By Korby Rhodes, Marines
Writing Type: Prose
By Korby L. Rhodes
The Marines of Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment are getting restless. We have been here for three weeks and haven’t seen anything. We have spent our whole time in the Corps training for combat. So, with no combat there is no excitement.
The constant days of boring patrols, terrible food and lack of motivation are starting to take its toll on all of us. We have nothing to do out here except watch bootleg movies on our portable DVD players and call home using paid-for phone cards that don’t eliminate the six-second delay when you actually make the call.
We in Kilo Company are mostly a mobile unit, which means our patrols are mostly done using Humvees. When we started three weeks ago the unit was in good spirits and trying to keep it fun. We hooked a Jolly Roger to the fourth Humvee in the caravan and would blare “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire as a sort of a theme song (the lyrics “ridin dirty” seemed to fit here). That was until the captain got wind of it and put a stop to it. “We are trying to make friends here, not enemies,” he said--a statement that made no sense to us bloodthirsty Marines, because we were there to kill, not make friends. The captain didn’t understand this.
Some of us have been here before, with some on their third deployment. They are hardened combat veterans of the fiercest fighting of the war so far, in Fallujah, two years earlier. Even they are chomping at the bit. Lance Corporal Florence, however, has never been here before.
Florence is different than most. He is a Security Forces Marine, which means he spent his first two years in the Corps guarding nuclear weapons at some base in Washington. That is not infantry work. Any punk can guard nukes.
This is not the main reason that he is so different, though. Most of us make fun of him because he holds tight to his Christian beliefs. Back in the states he doesn’t chase women, drink to excess or engage in a lot of the vulgarities that most Marines take part in. Even the ones who claim to be Christians have been corrupted, but not Florence. He is a really good guy, which is something that doesn’t fit in a Marine Corps infantry unit. We all think he is soft, too nice to fight. We are not sure how he will react in a combat situation.
There are patrols going out all the time here from Camp Gannon at Husaybah, the tiny village just outside the control point of the base. The captain doesn’t like having too many boots on the ground at one time in the town. “Too many targets,” he says. The fact is there really isn’t a need.
Husaybah is so small you can barely even describe it as a village. It’s, one of those places you won’t see on a map in America. Just some unincorporated town you fly through on your way to the Grand Canyon, or wherever your next family vacation is. Not that Husaybah is uninhabited. This place is packed with upwards of 4,500 people in just a few blocks. It’s like a sardine can but hotter than hell.
But it is still a standard Iraqi village in the traditional sense. Five mosques rise above the rest of the ramshackle buildings to create a sort of skyline. We can see this really well at night from the guard towers at Gannon-- the minarets in all their glory backlit by the setting sun, while the smoke of burning trash rises from the ashes. If this was the only view you got to see of Husaybah, you would think it was quaint.
Unfortunately, it is not. Most of the other buildings are falling apart from years of neglect and war. For the buildings that are still fully intact, you could jump from one rooftop to another because they are so close together, which we see the children do from time to time while playing.
Other than the mosques, the only building that is still fully intact is the mudhif. This is the ceremonial house owned by the local sheik to hold weddings, funerals and other important events. It is mostly made of reeds harvested from the nearby Euphrates River. The roof on this one is round, as is the inside. It reminds us of one of those tunnels we would pass through in a haunted house, minus the illusion of spinning and subsequent vertigo. The only opening to it is the one we go in and out of; the walls have no windows. So it stays relatively dark and cool.
The sheik gave us a tour of it when we started our tour a few weeks ago. He had done it for all the previous units as well. There is no sewer system in the village, so water tainted with urine and feces run rampant throughout. The locals drink it; they have too. Not only is there no sewer system, there is also no running water or filtration. The locals get by with what they have.
The food isn’t much better. The meat of choice around here is sheep. They raise them for slaughter on the few farms outside the city. They kill them and hang them in the city market for purchase. They bake in the sun for hours, and the unsold meat is rotten by the end of the day. But they are out there the next day selling the new meat with the old. For some, this is a livelihood, or as close as you can get to one out here.
The most interesting, or maybe more appropriately, depressing thing here is “Gas Day.” You see, there are too many vehicles around here, so the people who own them are only allowed to get gasoline once a week. It is a government rationing program, which doesn’t make sense because there is so much oil around here we could take a bath in it. The government runs everything, so whatever it says goes. It is an unfortunate reminder to all of us at Gannon just how lucky we have it in America.
We are heading out of the gate now, minus the pirate flag and theme music. Just four Humvees - trucks as we call them - 16 Marines and a desire to see some action. The Humvees are packed tight with enough ammo to destroy a small army, which is the point. They all have four large water jugs, two boxes of MRE’s, a first aid kit and other necessities in the trunk. The first and fourth trucks are equipped on top with the M240 machine gun. The second one has the M2 50-caliber machine gun (or “ma-deuce” as we call it), while the third truck has the Mark 19 cyclical grenade launcher. They are getting rusty because they have yet to be used since we have been here. We are all hoping that will change.
The anticipation is overtaking us. In Truck 3, Florence’s truck, Huddy listens to the radio and relays the messages. Huddy is the team leader in charge of the four guys in this vehicle. He is a private first class (the second lowest rank in the Corps) because he was insubordinate to officers and has been busted down. The Marines of Third Platoon love him, not just because he doesn’t take crap, but because he is a hardened war veteran. This is his third tour to Iraq. He has fought in Fallujah and Ramadi and knows how to motivate troops. He is cool under pressure and knows how to coordinate an attack. Everybody under his command listens intently to his instruction.
“It looks like we are heading down by the river,” Huddy says. “ Company headquarters seems to think there are some smugglers down there, peddling cigarettes and other stuff. This is the time they think they are usually down there. I ain’t so sure. We haven’t seen them yet. Not sure what gives HQ the idea that they would be there now…bunch of idiots.”
As we leave the entry control point of Camp Gannon, evening prayer call starts playing over the various loudspeakers attached to the mosques for just such a purpose. It is dusk, so we can see and smell the smoke rising up over the town as the residents’ burn their trash and bathroom waste. This is the only option they have. There are no trash bins. People have to deal with it on their own.
As we exit the gate, we make a hard left down the road that doubles as the border of Iraq and Syria. We are headed toward the river, just like HQ wants. The Euphrates has the only greenery in this part of the country, fertile enough soil used mostly for rice paddies. But there is some grass, and the river is actually pretty clean for a third world country.
We drive through the last wadi before hitting the area near the river and make a hard right. The ground here is uneven and can give way. We almost lost a truck a couple weeks ago when it veered too close to the river and the front wheel started to slide. We know better now.
“Not sure why they have us come down here,” Frenchy says. “This ground is awful. One of these times we are going to get stuck.” His real last name is Hebert, but we all just call him Frenchy because nobody can pronounce that crap. We all nod in agreement at his assessment.
The river is about a half mile north of the city and flows west to east. It is the longest river in the Middle East with very few bridges to cross over. Thus, we focus on patrolling the side we are on, the south side.
Clack, clack, clack--the distinct sound of the enemy’s AK-47. It is coming from the south, from where the city is. We can hear the shots whiz by us. Then there is the distinct hiss of an RPG, and another and then another. As we dismount from the trucks and start taking cover on the north side of each vehicle, the first RPG rips through the side of Truck One. The second RPG is high, flying over the head of the gunner in Truck Two, while the third RPG blows up harmlessly several feet behind Truck Four. The machine guns have opened up at this point, peppering the field with fire. We recoup and come up with a strategy to end the firefight.
Corporal Martinez, the squad leader, starts barking orders from the front. Truck 1 is completely disabled from the RPG at this point. “Get those guys!” Martinez screams.
We spread out on a line behind the trucks, preparing to rush the field. The AK-47 fire had stopped by this point. Martinez gives the order for the machine guns to cease, and the rush is on. It doesn’t appear that any fire came from the buildings in the distance. This appears to be a coordinated ambush by a small faction of the enemy in the open field. They knew we were coming. Maybe these were smugglers like HQ said. However, they were prepared. How did they know we would be coming this way? They must have been scouting us.
Dusk has turned to night by this point, and we all have to enable our night-vision goggles in order to see any movement in the field.
As the rush across the field continues, Florence sees a figure pop up out of the field just to his right. The figure clearly has a knife in his hand and is going toward Hebert. Florence lifts his weapon and fires three quick shots toward the figure. The third one pierces the man’s neck and he goes down, blood spewing out of the hole in his neck.
“Frenchy, you okay?” Florence says as they go to check out the dead man.
“Yeah, I’m good. Nice shot, brother.”
“All in day’s work buddy.”
The rush across the field is complete. An unspent RPG lies a few feet from the man Florence shot. Four enemy bodies in total lie wasted in the field. Three were taken out by the machine guns as indicated by their wounds; the fourth was the one Florence shot. None of them made it. It’s clear by the lack of backup that these were the only enemy sent to carry out this attack. They had been tossed to the wolves, knowing full well that they were going to die that day. Four enemy soldiers with limited ammo are not going to take out a squad of Marines. We all turn to head back to the trucks and cordon off the area until the cleanup crew arrives.
“Holy crap, Florence! You smoked that hadji,” Huddy says. “How did it feel?”
Florence isn’t sure how to answer that. His emotions were all over the place. He went from scared, to mad to…well he didn’t really know how he felt. All he knew was that he had taken a life, albeit an enemy one. Should he be happy? He didn’t know.
“I feel like I am going to pass out, my adrenaline is flowing so hard,” Florence says.
“Don’t get used to it,” Huddy says. It only happens the first time. You just get numb to it after a while.”
Florence knows this was true coming from Huddy. He just doesn’t know how to feel about it, though.
“Hey! Stop lollygagging and get your asses over here!” Martinez yells. “We got wounded!”
We all run to where Truck One lies in a pile of rubble. The gunner had taken shrapnel to the lower leg when the RPG slammed into the back side of the vehicle. Martinez is bleeding from the back of his neck, and PFC Realmuto, the gunner for Truck One, is lying on the ground when we approach.
“How is everybody? Everybody okay?” Huddy asks.
“No, Muto is dead,” says Martinez with tears welling up in his eyes. “Those bastards got him with that RPG.”
War is hell, but losing a fellow Marine is the worst.
“THIS…” Huddy says pointing at Muto’s body and staring at Florence, “you never get used to. War makes you numb, but death scars you forever.”
War makes you numb, but death scars you forever. Florence keeps running that over in his mind. Does he just mean the death of a fellow Marine? What about when you kill someone? Does their death scar you? Florence just wants this day to be over. He has had enough.
“I already called in our position,” Martinez says. “All we can do is wait now. It is going to be a long night. From what HQ said, there are skirmishes everywhere. The cleanup crew may not get here for several hours because of all the fighting. We will just have to hold tight. We are actually in a pretty good spot here. There isn’t any place for the hadjis to hide except for that field, and we killed all of them. We should be able to hold our position with no more threat. All gunners mount up, and Huddy, since your truck has the hero of the day, you guys get first watch.”
We are all spent but excited. We have finally seen some action, and from what it sounds like there is more on the way. Florence had wasted a guy. We couldn’t believe it, honestly. The good little church boy stepped up and killed someone. That makes everyone feel better about him. There will never be a doubt about him again. We can all trust him now.
We had only been back at Gannon a few hour. We had been sitting out there for the better part of a day. It was evening again now, a day after the firefight. As the last faint light of the sun dropped below the skyline of the city, Florence continued to ponder the events of the last 24 hours. He was tired now, just ready to hit the sack, but his brain wouldn’t stop racing. He had killed a guy, and he had liked it. What did that mean? Should he feel that way? He needed to reconcile those feelings, and only more war could do that. He couldn’t wait for the next fight.