John Koopman / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-09-05 08:56:29
Twentynine Palms, CA (September 3, 2006) — Sometimes, there are just no words.
In a parking lot baked by the desert sun, a young Marine stands in line waiting to get on a bus. A young woman walks with him. They hold hands. They stare intently into each other’s eyes, trying to communicate something that cannot be said. Her hand grips his arm, her knuckles white. Finally, they reach the door. He gives her one last kiss.
It’s a long kiss, but the men behind him say nothing. They are not in a hurry. The bus, painted white with no markings, will take the young lover and his buddies to an Air Force base. They will board a passenger jet and make their way to Kuwait. And then, Iraq.
It’s a scene played out regularly at the world’s largest Marine base, on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. The war in Iraq has been going on for less than four years, but this is the fourth time these Marines — members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — will be deployed there.
“This is the second time we’ve gone through this,” said Jaime Pater, 28, the wife of a Marine warrant officer. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
Pater is pregnant with the couple’s second child, due in October. Her husband, Frank, will miss the birth.
“I just can’t imagine him not being here when the baby is born,” she said, holding her tummy with both hands. “When our first son, Matthew, was born, Frank left a week later. But at least he was there for the birth.”
Kelli Coehlo is also pregnant. She’s 19. She’s saying goodbye to her husband, Joseph Coehlo, a 22-year-old lance corporal on his way to Iraq for the first time. The baby is their first, a girl to be named Kaylee.
“This is hard, really hard,” she said, her face stained with tears. “It’s harder than I thought.”
As the war in Iraq winds through its fourth year, more and more soldiers and Marines are cycling in and out of that country. It’s difficult to find a Marine at Twentynine Palms who has not been there at least once. Many have been there twice or more.
The battalion, known by its numeric designator “Three-Four,” is among the first to go back for a fourth tour. During its first three tours, it lost 11 men.
Three-Four was with the 1st Marine Division when the United States launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The unit saw a lot of action, first at Basra, then Diwaniya, Kut and later in Baghdad. The battalion led the fight for a key bridge over the Dyala Canal, a waterway along the southeast area of Baghdad, which was key to allowing the rest of the division to cross into the city. On the way, it lost four men — one to an accident and three to hostile fire.
This was the Marine battalion that helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, effectively marking the end of the fight for Baghdad.
After the fall of Baghdad, two more Marines from Three-Four lost their lives. One was killed by an Iraqi and another by a Marine sniper in a “friendly fire” accident.
The battalion left Iraq in June 2003 and returned again at the beginning of 2004. The Marines fought in Fallujah when that city erupted in violence in April 2004, following the horrific assassinations of four American security contractors. Three-Four lost four Marines there.
Three-Four returned again in 2005 with a different commanding officer. On that tour, the battalion provided security and stability operations in and around Fallujah, and helped with the Iraqi elections late that year. They lost one man.
More than 2,600 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Iraq since the beginning of this conflict.
On Thursday, the battalion’s headquarters company assembled at a parking lot and prepared to move out. About 200 men formed lines to board the buses. They wore their desert camouflage uniforms and carried nothing but their weapons. Their other gear was packed separately.
The other companies, India, Kilo and Lima — whose names mean nothing other than letter designators — were to go through the same drill in the following days.
It’s become a bit of a routine. Nearly everyone has gone through this before. If not departing to Iraq, then Afghanistan, Africa, Okinawa or Korea. Leaving is never easy, but repetition allows Marines and their families to know what to expect.
There were a couple of dozen family members at the headquarters company departure. Mostly wives. Some girlfriends. A handful of kids.
Some wives and mothers are “Key Volunteers,” serving as a liaison between Marines overseas and families in the states. Several showed up Thursday to console weeping moms and support Marines.
“We’ve got a grandma who needs some help,” said one Key Volunteer to a group of her colleagues who were chatting. The women converged on an older woman who was crying uncontrollably. They stood close and spoke in hushed tones, reaching out to place a consoling hand on her shoulder. The woman squatted down, trying to catch her breath in the 102-degree heat, tears dripping down her cheeks and neck.
Some of the women had Marines leaving; others have Marines currently serving in Iraq.
“We want to make sure every Marine has someone to see him off,” said Nikki Clark, 34, of Reno. “A lot of these guys don’t have wives. A lot of them, their families are far away and they just can’t make it out here.”
The Key Volunteers wear T-shirts that say “Official Hugger.” Marines seldom ask for a hug, Clark said. But when offered, she said, they usually take it. And like it.
The battalion is led by Lt. Col. Scott Shuster, a 40-year-old career Marine from Camarillo (Ventura County). He said the unit is headed to the border area of Al Qaim, currently under the control of a sister unit, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Al Qaim has been relatively peaceful in recent months, even as Baghdad and Ramadi have exploded in violence.
Al Qaim is technically part of Anbar province, but it’s different geographically and demographically from its neighbors to the east. The people are more tribal and less religious. But it still sits next door to Syria, and occasionally is visited by some of the most hard-core jihadists in the region.
Out of the 1,000 or so Marines in Three-Four, only one or two have been with the unit since the invasion. It is the nature of the military that people move in and out of units and duty stations. Shuster said 20 percent of his men have been in the battalion for two previous tours; 60 percent will be going with Three-Four for the first time.
It’s impossible to know how many of the Marines have been there before, but it’s safe to say a good number know what the sands of Iraq taste like.
“Each tour has been significantly different from the last,” Shuster said. “It’s good to have men in the unit who’ve been to Iraq, but the truth is, if you’ve been out of country for two weeks, the situation has changed and you’re pretty much starting fresh.”
This fourth tour in Iraq comes at a time when the war is increasingly controversial among Americans and support for President Bush’s policies is rapidly slipping.
None of that seems to matter to the Marines. Which is not to say they don’t know or care about public opinion. But they operate under a different code. If their commanders say “go,” they go.
“The war is something these guys definitely talk about,” said Capt. Patrick Faye, the 30-year-old commander of Lima Company, who grew up in San Francisco. “These guys aren’t stupid or uninformed. They read the papers. In the chow hall, the TVs are always tuned to Fox news and CNN. So they know what’s going on.”
They just usually don’t take their comments or criticisms public, he said.
Faye is a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I’m looking forward to getting over there,” said Faye, whose brother is currently in the San Francisco Police Academy. “We have a chance to do some good for the Iraqi people. It’s an important job, and it will help the Iraqi people.”
Some civilians wonder why more troops don’t question the war, the president, their orders. Certainly, some soldiers and Marines have deserted; many have gone to Canada to get out of deploying to Iraq.
A lot of the Marines do question the war and the reasons for it. But their reasons for going in spite of other options are as individual as the men who make up the battalion.
Many consider themselves professional Marines, and so they do what they are ordered to do.
Others do it for the excitement and adventure.
Most go because they have a sense of brotherhood, and they want to be there for their buddies.
“I extended my enlistment so I could go,” said Cpl. Anthony Powers, a 22-year-old sniper from Sebastopol who got married last weekend. “I want to be with my guys and help lead them. I know these guys better than I know my own family.”
His buddy, Cpl. Dave Knaub, 21, of Phoenix, said he just wants to get the tour over with so he can get out of the Marines and study at Arizona State University. That, he said, is where the girls are.
Sgt. Charles Whitehead, 22, of Warrensburg, Mo., is on his way to Iraq for the third time in his three years in the Corps.
“I didn’t expect this,” he said. “I mean, I knew what was going on and all, but I wouldn’t have thought I’d be there three times.”
Whitehead could have opted out of this tour, but he said he chose to go again.
“I love my Marines,” he said. “They’re going, so I want to go with them, to protect them and to make sure they all come back alive. I’ve got a little experience, so I know what to expect. But some of these guys are going for the first time. You can’t really prepare for that if you haven’t been.”
It’s early evening and Sgt. Benjamin Sundell is in a booth at Denny’s, just a few miles from the front gate at Twentynine Palms. He’s supposed to leave in the morning, and he’s catching a few last moments with his wife, Jenna.
They sit side by side. She clings tightly to his arm.
Sundell, 22, grew up around Salem, Ore. He says he’s a farm boy. He grew up hunting, fishing, playing football. He wanted to be in the military since he was 9, and he wanted to be a Marine since he was 14. He enlisted while still in high school, just before the Sept. 11 attacks. He accelerated high school so he could go to boot camp early.
Sundell is probably the only Marine in Three-Four who has been with the unit since the invasion of Iraq. This will be his fourth tour there. He says he’ll go back again and again if need be.
“I’ll go 10 times if the Marine Corps asks me to,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity to serve my country. I love my country, and I love serving it.”
Sundell is an infantry Marine, as are the majority of the men in Three-Four. Infantry Marines are called “grunts,” and they wear that title with pride. A lot of them look down on the mechanics, drivers, technicians and administrative types who are their comrades. It sounds cliche to some, but grunts are often the true believers. They join because they want to be there, and if there’s a shooting war going on, they want to be part of it.
“It’s definitely a pride thing,” Sundell said. “I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.”
He has a tattoo of Chinese characters on the underside of his right arm. The characters translate to: “I Fear No Man.” It’s not quite as macho as it sounds. Sundell said it reflects his feelings about life and war and spirituality. He’s seen the best and worst of humanity, and while he subscribes to no organized religion, he believes in God.
“Man can only do so much to me,” he said. “I know my eternal soul rests somewhere else.”
Sundell met his future wife after his second tour in Iraq. He was at Camp Pendleton, just south of Orange County. They were engaged three months later.
“I respect him more than I can ever imagine,” Jenna Sundell said while her husband was off to the bathroom, what the Marines refer to as a “head call.” “He’s the best man I could ever ask for.”
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