War Diary: A week in the life of a Marine unit

Breaking Camp
Tuesday, March 18

CAMP RIPPER, KUWAIT-The lights suddenly flash on at 1 a.m. in our tent at Camp Ripper, a three-mile-wide circle of brown desert near Iraq's southern border with Kuwait. The lights and the shouts of Capt. Steve Pritchard, commander of the Lima Battery of six artillery guns and 131 marines, startles the 13 men sleeping on the tent's dusty plywood floor.

"We're packing up and leaving right now, and we're not coming back," Pritchard yells. Lima Battery of the 3rd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment within the 1st Marine Division is going north to invade Iraq. His men, although impatient to get the war over with so they can leave this desolate ground and go home, are stunned by the skipper's news. They thought they would have several more days to pack up their gear, as well as Lima's long-range 155-mm guns, weighing nine tons each, and the boxy seven-ton Oshkosh trucks that haul them.

The marines in the tent do not shout their traditional cheer-Hooah!-nor do they curse Saddam. They just push themselves quietly out of their sleeping bags and walk to the front of the tent to hear what Pritchard has to say about this sudden change in their lives.

As a reporter embedded with Lima Battery, I have been told I was "family" by Lima's warm first sergeant, Gilbert Contreras, but I know I'm really not family. Not this morning, anyway, as the real members of the Marine family watch their lives pass before their eyes. After leaving my tent mates alone for what I hope is a decent interval, I ask a cross section of them what is uppermost in their minds as they contemplate going to war.

None of them has ever been in combat before. But they all accept that they signed up to die for their country, if need be. "My deepest apprehension is making sure I'm in the right place at the right time," says the ever-conscientious and frenetic Pritchard. The Lima skipper is 29 and has a wife and child waiting for him back at his unit's home base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. His commander has chosen him to lead the three batteries and their big guns into war.

Pritchard and the first sergeant will ride at the head of the column in a Humvee with an extra-thick steel roof to stop bullets. The marines call it a Humvee "hardback." I'm to ride in one of the two back seats.

Pritchard's concern about being in the right place at the right time is understandable. Precision is a matter of life and death for friend and foe, when you're positioning cannons that can hurl shells a distance of 18 miles and can kill everybody in a space as big as a city block. Today's artillery shells are far from being just big chunks of iron. Some send out a shower of hand grenades, which explode over the target and send death-dealing shrapnel in all directions. Other shells are packed with felt wads soaked with phosphorus, which ignite as they drop to the ground and burn through metal and bone. But a gun commander has to know exactly on what spot on the Earth his guns are standing, in order to send their deadly loads to the right place.

"I feel like our marines are pretty prepared," says Lima's executive officer, 1st Lt. Pat Klowkow, 26, of Sunnyvale, Calif., when asked if he is worried about the war ahead of him and his men. Klowkow is married to another Marine lieutenant and fellow member of the class of 1999 at the U.S. Naval Academy, CH-46 helicopter pilot Anne Kipp Klowkow. "I don't feel apprehension," he adds.

Lima's gunnery sergeant, Stanley Staniszewski, 38, of Buffalo, N.Y., says of the war, "I'm for getting it over with so I can go home."

Staff Sgt. Ronald W. Young, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, acknowledges that, yes, he is worried about being shot in Iraq, but mainly, he says, "I'm thinking right now what must be going through the minds of the men."

First Lt. Richard "Carl" Christie, 27, of Dallas, another Naval Academy graduate in Lima Battery, says, "I feel a lot of operational concern, and excitement mixed in with anxiety. I'm confident our training has brought us to the point where we are effective. I'm afraid of only one thing, and it's not of getting killed or hurt, but of making a mistake that could cost American lives." As Lima's fire-direction officer, Christie makes the intricate mathematical calculations that, if accurate, enable the gunmen to hit the targets the forward observers designate.

"I'm thinking a lot about home right now," says 2nd Lt. Daniel Thunen, 23, of Aurora, Calif., the assistant executive officer for Lima Battery. Unmarried, Thunen says he is thinking about his parents and three sisters.

I ask a young Marine gunner, Jesse McMahan, 20, of Astoria, Ore., whether he is afraid. "Of course I am!" he says with justifiable disgust.

Skipper Pritchard and 1st Sgt. Contreras walk to the truck park beside the tent city to address their men. Pritchard starts off-commanding officers always go first. He tells his marines to think of themselves in Iraq as an ugly old sheepdog, which may get nothing but a rub on the ear from the shepherd for saving his sheep from the wolf that has been slaughtering them every night. All the same, he tells the young marines standing before him this morning, "The Iraqi people will be forever grateful for what you are about to do."

Contreras is a far cry from the shouting, stomping, nose-to-nose drill sergeant of Marine lore. He walks around the camp with the careful step of a priest and often talks like one to his young marines. He knows when he is being lied to; and when he needs to, he can lay into his marines with the hard language of the street. "I came into the Corps on a criminal waiver," he explains to me, "so I know when one of these guys is BSing me."

One by one, Contreras looks each man in the formation in the eye and shakes his hand; then he asks them all to kneel with him while he prays. Kevlar helmets come off as the men kneel on the hardpack of sand and gravel. He tells them the biblical story of Jericho. They will be modern-day trumpets bringing down the walls that hem in the Iraqi people. He tells them that marines die in one of two ways: on the battlefield or of old age. He asks God to protect them so they can all go home together to die of old age.

The formation breaks up. Marines finish their packing, get the last hot breakfast they will receive for a long time, and part with friends by saying things like "Good to go; be safe."

Pritchard's hardback Humvee moves out. The six Oshkosh trucks with marines inside haul the guns. We move north in a column. No bands play. It's just a bunch of marines nobody has ever heard of, attending to business.

The skipper holds the Global Positioning System navigation box nicknamed "the plugger" on the sill of the Humvee's right front window. He keeps his eyes on the plugger's screen, calling course corrections to Cpl. Mark Karl Witte, 23, of Escanaba, Mich. Witte is so patient and kind to everyone that Contreras has ordered him to be mean at least one day a week. But Witte can't be.

"I feel like I'm in a submarine," complains Pritchard, of his need to look only at the GPS and not at the brown desert sliding by us. We go east and onto Kuwait's part of Route 80, which became the "Highway of Death" for fleeing Iraqis in 1991. We have to stop frequently, for Pritchard to check on Lima's column of trucks and guns following us and to make and answer endless radio calls.

At one of these stops, I ask Witte how he feels about driving us to war. "I just want to get this over with, so people can live in peace. I'm a human being. It makes me mad the way people have to live under" Saddam Hussein. Witte was a parts manager in a Dodge dealership back in Escanaba and says he likes the Corps. "It's nice to have people all around you," he says.

We resume rolling north. The static-filled radio-will the military ever get a crystal-clear one?-comes to life with a message from U.S. Central Command, the outfit that will run the war: "All Iraqi forces are to be considered hostile."

"We're at war, George," Pritchard exclaims. We turn off Route 80 and go cross-country to the Marine dispersal area, another Kuwaiti launching pad for American military power. The artillerymen do the backbreaking work of setting up and aiming the guns there. This job of setting up involves six marines straining their backs to lift each side of the nine-ton gun out of the truck hitch. Lima's six guns are "laid"-as artillerymen call the process of putting them into place-but they are not fired.

Pretty soon we are told to pack everything up again and move to another spot. The men spend much of the night digging shallow foxholes with pickaxes and shovels near their trucks at each stop. They do not sleep in the holes, but they may need them in case of attack. There is no shelling of the camp from the Iraqis just across the border. The only noise among Lima Battery, this first cold night on the way to war, is the desert wind as it blows sand over everything.

The Big Picture
Wednesday, March 19

IN THE NORTHEAST KUWAITI DESERT-Lt. Col. Kirk W. Hymes calls to his tent the four reporters embedded in his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment, to give them the first official peek at the Marine war plan for southern Iraq. The battalion commander explains that the Marines hope to shock Iraq with so much military power-tanks, planes, big guns like Lima Battery's, and front-line troops-that the core of Saddam's fighting force will lose heart and surrender en masse.

He makes it clear that the Marines have no intention of fanning all through southern Iraq to take on one enemy unit at a time or go house to house. The whole idea is speed, speed, speed. So the first objective, he says, is to knock out the Iraqi armored division based in southern Iraq, not far from the border town of Safwan. Hymes says the Marines hope to knock out that division-the 51st-and then move quickly northwest rather than tarry in the south. Although he does not say so, the tenor of his remarks suggests that the Marines will be racing pell-mell to reach Baghdad.

Hymes is careful, subdued, and reluctant to give details in this first briefing for the press. But he undergoes an astounding change a few hours later when he addresses his entire battalion as they sit in formation in the Kuwaiti desert, about to go into battle for the first time.

Giving a fair imitation of fabled Marine warrior Chesty Puller, Hymes says that his men are going into Iraq to "kick the ass" of Saddam's army and that the dictator "will never know what hit him.... It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight."

After the colonel's speech, Lima Battery moves closer to the Iraqi border. The battery stops in the shadow of the highest bit of ground in this area, a hill called Safwan Mountain, which the Iraqi military uses as a lookout post. The battery sets up its guns, fires some shells onto the mountain, and goes to bed.

Crossing the Border
Thursday, March 20

SAFWAN, Iraq-The next morning, Safwan stands out in jagged profile against the desert sky, looking close enough to touch. The 155-mm howitzers again fire away at targets on the mountain. Marine M-1 tanks charge the base of Safwan Mountain on its western side.

Its shelling complete, Lima Battery packs up yet again and travels eastward across the Kuwaiti desert, heading for Route 80, the Highway of Death. As our Humvee bounces eastward, 1st Sgt. Contreras keeps glancing upward, and says, "I like to see those snakes in the sky." The snakes are Marine Cobra helicopter gunships, which now are flying low overhead, their needle noses pointing down and spitting a fire of bullets and rockets at the Iraqis all around the border town of Safwan.

On Route 80 for the second time since leaving Camp Ripper, our Humvee crawls north behind a long column of Marine military power, including M-1 tanks and armored troop and reconnaissance vehicles. It is stop-and-go at first because an Iraqi mine blew one track off an M-1 tank up ahead of us, just a short distance into Iraq. But once we'd gone through the border station, I thought I was watching a television rerun of Gulf War I. Loudspeakers from aircraft overhead told Iraqi civilians in Arabic to stay in their houses and urged soldiers and others who wanted to surrender simply to walk on the eastern shoulder of Highway 80 and keep going until the British came through to pick them up. But the Iraqi civilians could not resist standing on their porches and watching this parade of military power that would soon change their lives, one way or another. Most of the civilians smiled and gave a thumbs-up, and a few waved tiny flags of green and black stripes.

We keep going slowly north on Route 80 and see the devastation of the Marine bombing, most spectacularly the flames leaping out of severed aboveground oil pipelines along the route. Jagged silhouettes of black-smoke clouds from the burning oil-punctuate the skyline on both sides of Route 80.

Lima pulls briefly into a field tended by poor Iraqi farmers. The idea is to set up the guns here. An Iraqi woman holds up her baby but does not approach the Americans. Sgt. Contreras goes from civilian to civilian in the collection of mud huts and hands earplugs to each. He shows the baffled Iraqis how to insert them in their ears to muffle the sound of the big guns being set up in their farmyard. The apparent father of the family says in English to Contreras, "Saddam no good."

At the first sign of this American largesse-the bright little yellow boxes of earplugs-the farmer says he needs 25 more of them, for reasons nobody can figure out. An Iraqi woman, apparently the wife of the farmer, carries an orange pitcher of water out to the marines riding into her life in their Humvees and Oshkosh trucks. But the marines turn down the welcome, probably for fear that the water might be impure. Contreras, ever the diplomat, nevertheless puts his hand over his heart in a gesture of thanks and respect.

As it turns out, Lima Battery does not fire its guns from this field, and soon it packs up and again heads north. On this day, the farmers didn't need their new earplugs after all.

Friendly Fire
Monday, March 24

SOMEWHERE IN CENTRAL IRAQ-"Take cover! Take cover!" Capt. Pritchard yells at me as he pushes on my sleeping bag, in which I lie on the flat ground beside our Humvee. After three straight, and endless, days of driving in slow-moving convoys, we are camped along Route 1, about 130 miles south of Baghdad. Pritchard has heard explosions on the edge of our encampment. He has seen an unidentified civilian pickup truck and thinks we may be under attack. I hear the familiar flat, atonal pang, pang, pang of Marine M-16 rifles being fired out on the perimeter. I scan the surroundings but see no advancing enemy. A few minutes later, we learn there is no one out there to worry about. The explosions were just slightly inaccurate friendly fire hitting the edge of our camp. It turned out to be a grenade launcher from another Marine unit that was firing in the wrong direction.

The Storm
Tuesday, March 25

SOMEWHERE IN CENTRAL IRAQ-We break camp again and roll onto Route 1, heading north. Always north. Using his call sign, Lt. Col. Hymes declares over the radio that a vaunted Iraqi armored brigade has blocked Route 1 ahead of us. The famed Marine regimental combat team from the 5th Regiment is bracing for the Iraqi brigade to attack and wants Lima's artillery and that of other batteries deployed to help respond. "We're going to blast the shit out of them," growls Hymes.

I am surprised the Iraqis are playing to the U.S. strengths: superior armor, front-line troops, and air power. It looked for a while as if Saddam had decided to draw U.S. troops into his cities and win psychological victories by inflicting heavy casualties on the invading Americans. But some Iraqi units seem willing to confront the Marine units head-on out in the open desert.

Headquarters experts have been poring over maps of the terrain in the barren wasteland around Route 1 and have suggested that the artillery batteries go to a certain spot within shelling range of the advancing Iraqis. Pritchard, using the GPS, leads Lima Battery and other units in the battalion to that spot. Even though the wind is howling and the sand is flying, the artillerymen rush out onto ground they've never seen before, survey it, and decide on the best places to put the 155-mm howitzers. Then they deploy Marine riflemen from the trucks to protect them while they do their intricate work. Marines have become so good at setting up that they can arrive on an unknown spot of ground and have their guns firing within 18 minutes. Every time I see it, I still can't believe it.

The guns boom, and then fall silent. Apparently the idea is to wait until the Iraqis get into closer range before firing again. Another factor in keeping the guns quiet is the howling sandstorm, which is blinding everyone as it gains force. There could be more artillery duels this night, but it looks as if both friend and foe are hunkering down until the desert storm passes.

The marines of Lima and other batteries dig themselves foxholes every night. This night is the first time I follow suit. Until now, I had never sensed the enemy as a real threat. But the Republican Guard armored brigade ahead is said to be advancing, and word is that the Iraqi soldiers have forced women and children to advance with them so the Americans will hesitate to shoot. Digging a foxhole near the Humvee, however, strikes me as risky, because if the Iraqis fire at the vehicle, it could blow up. Yet the storm is so thick with sand that you can get lost just 10 feet away from the Humvee. Ever since 1988, when Lance Cpl. Jason Rother got lost and died during Marine exercises in the California desert near Twentynine Palms-the home base of Lima Battery-marines have not been allowed to go into the desert without a buddy.

Remembering a trick that the North Vietnamese used at night to guide themselves from their hiding places in the jungle to nearby American bases, I had brought along a clothesline. Now, I lay it on the ground between the Humvee and my foxhole so I can find the dugout if I have to run into it tonight.

The Fight
Wednesday, March 26

100 MILES SOUTH OF BAGHDAD-"The worst night of my life," Pfc. Evan Ahlin, 19, of Durham, N.H., says as he looks down the gun line after the most ferocious storm since the Marines invaded Iraq. The night was a combination of brutal winds, flying sand and mud, and drenching rain. Ahlin is one of the crewmen for gun five, one of the 18 155-mm cannons that the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Regiment brought to bear on the Iraqi Republican Guard's 1st Division, known as the Medina Division.

The guns roared all night long and had to be moved several times to keep up with the fleeing Iraqis. Advanced reconnaissance forces credited the artillery barrage with destroying many T-72 tanks, a weapons cache, several armored vehicles, and hundreds of Iraqis, although I can't independently confirm this. The challenge of the night, as Ahlin and other gun-crew members described it, is that once set up, the cannons can be swiveled only limited distances left or right. But as the Iraqis dispersed and fled, the gun crews had to pick up the back of each cannon to pivot it in the right direction in order to continue firing. This required balancing the nine-ton gun on its base plate. Then three men on either side of the gun's long legs-called trains, three trains on each side-would manhandle it to the left or right so it could again target the fleeing Iraqis.

With slippery mud underfoot and sand filling the men's eyes, ears, and noses, Staff Sgt. Luis Hernandez, the platoon leader, said it was the worst night he had ever experienced in all his years in the Marine Corps. "And this storm, with its 40-knot winds, came on my 11th anniversary of joining the Corps," he said with a smile. I asked him then what had been the best night of those years, and he said, again smiling, "Being out here last night, with the men."

As the shells kept hurtling out from this spot of ground, just 12 miles behind the Iraqi armored brigade that was being hit, I wondered why the Republican Guards did not use their radar to zero in on our big guns. With that information, they could have sent shells right back to the origin of this killing fire from the Marines. Skipper Pritchard explained that our own radar is so much better than the Iraqis' that if they turned theirs on, we could destroy them almost immediately. Missiles from artillery or aircraft can ride the enemy radar beam right down to its source.

So here, as in so many other places, the Americans have the overwhelming technological advantage as the two militaries slug it out. Saddam and his generals must know that, so I can't help but think they are making a series of last stands to impress the Arab audience, or perhaps to try to win some kind of concession from Washington if they can inflict enough casualties on the invading Americans.

From the way the artillery keeps chasing the Iraqis northward toward Baghdad, it appears that the capital city will indeed be Saddam Hussein's last stand, if he chooses to make it so. Commanders are still warning, here and elsewhere, that if this war has to be won through city fighting, American casualties could be high.

A Gunnery Sergeant's View
Thursday, March 27

90 MILES FROM BAGHDAD-Eight days into their first war, the men of Lima Battery are like thousands of other U.S. troops in Iraq: They have yet to hear enemy bullets whiz past their ears, or to see a dead Iraqi soldier.

"They want to see stuff," said Gunnery Sgt. Stanley Staniszewski, of the young men in his charge. It's not that Lima's members want to get shot. But many of them expected war to be more exciting, and they wanted combat to test their manhood. Lance Cpl. William Burrows, 22, of Vancouver, Wash., falls in this category. "I joined the Corps because I wanted to blow up things," he said, with a bit of frustration.

Still, war surrounds Lima Battery on Iraqi Route 1-an incomplete but already-paved superhighway running from southern Iraq northward to Baghdad. Scores of M-1 tanks clank by, and bombs go off all around the roadway. Marine Cobra helicopter gunships pound an armored brigade of the Iraqi regular army's 1st Mechanized Division, and Marine infantry is dug in everywhere. A few Iraqi prisoners have been walking by on Route 1, hands tied behind their backs. But the men of Lima have not been directly engaged in any of this: They pull the firing lanyards on their cannons, but they don't see where their shells hit or witness the destruction that follows.

Dashed expectations or no, the good news is that at this eighth-day point in the war, nobody in the battery has been killed or even wounded. The bad news is that Staniszewski and other leaders don't know how long they can keep the edge on their marines-these men who are getting by on three hours of sleep a night-without the adrenalin rush of something dramatic.

"We're slowing down," says Staniszewski. "My biggest fear is blue-on-blue," the problem of friendly forces shooting at each other out of fatigue or other causes. All in all, though, the officers are pleased with how their battery has handled the stress of the constant repositionings of the guns at night and in all kinds of weather. Battery commander Pritchard said he feels that all of their tough training in the California desert is paying off in Iraq, with battery members displaying high morale and superb skills.

Although marines are diligent about tending to business, and have certainly done so with their cannons, they know how to look around them. Many express shock at the extreme poverty of most Iraqis. In convoys that go only 5 mph, marines heading north get close-up views of farmers living in mud huts-scenes similar to those from America's Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

"It breaks your heart to see the poverty of the people, when you know what they're sitting on top of," Pritchard said, in reference to the oil underneath the ground here.

Staniszewski agreed. For him, it's the old story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, with farmers in near-rags living hard by oil refineries. "I hope, after we're done here, that the Iraqis who now live in mud huts will at least have wooden houses," Staniszewski said.