Friday, January 27, 2006

Badges? We don't need no stinkin' Badges!

Marines and law enforcement – there is an inseparable link between the two professions. Visit any job fair aboard a Marine Corps base and you’ll find the longest line forming in front of the law enforcement booths. Police departments, Sheriff’s offices and federal agencies all offer an opportunity for young Marines to parlay their skills and interests into a career field built on a foundation of pride, professionalism, and esprit de corps.

Beyond the similarity of equipment and uniforms, each strives to enforce a universal law of nature, a law dictating the separation of good and evil. Marines and cops are society’s good guys, their inner drive fueled by the desire to weed out danger from society, be it criminal or insurgent. Good order and discipline are the hallmarks of both professions, each respecting a chain of command and the necessity to follow orders in the face of danger.

It is devotion to duty, love of country and service to fellow man that weaves the common thread between our two professions. Even in Iraq, our law enforcement brethren surround us. Dozens of Marine reservists like myself hail from various law enforcement agencies back home. Take the Marines of 5th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment (5/14), for example. They deployed to Camp Fallujah last year to form a “provisional” Military Police Battalion instead of deploying in their traditional artillery battalion role. A number of its men are current or former Police Officers and Federal Agents, to include the Battalion Commander and his Executive Officer. They utilize their civilian skills to enhance the security and safety of the Marines deployed with the MEF, escorting convoys, guarding observations posts, and performing other quasi-law enforcement functions. Other MEF elements are comprised primarily of Marine Corps Reservists who are cops in their civilian careers. The bulk of the Marines attached to the P3 program (Police Partnership Program) are law enforcement officers at home. As P3 Marines, they train Iraqi Police recruits in the basics of community policing, search and seizure, firearms, and other law enforcement curriculum. A similar situation befalls the Marines of the II MEF (Fwd) DBE or Directorate of Border Enforcement. These Marines, many of them cops in real life, teach patrolling and policing skills to the newly formed Iraqi Border Police along the Syrian and Jordanian border.

Civilian police officers have also joined the fight in Iraq. They fill the ranks of the CPATT or the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team. These volunteers are civilian cops who’ve taken sabbaticals
from their jobs at home to deploy to Iraq and assist with the training of the Iraqi Police. CPATT includes the likes of Montcalm County Deputy Sheriff John Hannon, a man who left his family and friends behind in Michigan to deploy to Iraq and work alongside the Marines of II MEF (Fwd). His very first trip into Fallujah was interrupted by the simultaneous detonation of two IEDs against his convoy, a sobering welcome to an extremely dangerous community.

The MEF hosts a slew of civilian Special Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), its criminal investigators and counter-intelligence agents spread throughout the II MEF (Fwd) area of operations - Camp Fallujah, Blue Diamond, and Al Asad to name a few. They routinely investigate accidental or suicidal deaths, thefts, assaults, and other felonious crimes that occasionally occur aboard the bases and FOB’s in Iraq. They are often assisted by Marine Corps investigators from the USMC Criminal Investigative Division, the “detective” arm of the USMC Military police units. At Camp Fallujah, Gunnery Sgt. Orlando Higgins works side by side with the NCIS Special Agents in an effort to help counter the occasional bad apple that sometimes finds its way into our Corps of Marines.

Of the twenty-three NYPD Officers killed at the World Trade Center, three were former Marines. Sergeant John G. Coughlin was an active member of the Rockland County detachment of the Marine Corps League, helping older veterans and doing honor guard duty at funerals. "He loved that," his wife said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine." One of his favorite times was the middle of December, when he would take a week's vacation to work on the Marine Toys for Tots Program. "He was a firm believer that every kid should have a toy for Christmas," Mrs. Coughlin said. He perished in the collapse of the towers.

A member of Harlem-based Emergency Service Unit Truck 2 of the New York City Police Department, Michael Sean Curtin was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. He was last heard from that morning when he phoned his wife to wish her a happy birthday, his wife said. Having enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1975, he was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant Major. Were he still alive, he’d probably be here in Iraq, on duty with his fellow Marines.

Marines will always be attracted to law enforcement. It could be the guns or perhaps it’s the ability to carry a badge. Most likely, it’s the desire to continue the tradition of serving ones country and protecting the freedoms we so easily take for granted. There’s a great quote from the movie “A Few Good Men,” where Jack Nicholson’s character, Col. Nathan Jessup, defends the actions of his Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During a courts martial proceeding, he speaks directly to a young Naval Lawyer who has never been in harms way, has never faced the enemy or been silhouetted in the sights of an enemy sniper. It just as easily applies to the Patrolman walking the beat, the “thin blue line” that separates good from evil back home.

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because, deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you" and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Dogs of War

Marines love their animals...always have, always will. One can travel halfway around the globe and still find a pet of some sort being cared for by Marines. Aboard the FOB's and bases in Iraq, you'll find stray cats or dogs being cared for by Marines, despite the general order expressly forbidding such behavior. Although the order was published to help deter the spread of disease, you'll always find a corpsman or armchair veterinarian willing to care for these pets.

That mangy dog or cat is simply a tangible reminder of home. It's often the only time a Marine will display any sort of emotion in public, always maintaining that "tough as nails" bravado in front of his buddies. Often, it provides the perfect amount of comfort to a Marine who has just returned from a tough patrol or mission in the field. I've spoken with Commanders who choose to "look the other way" when it comes to enforcing the order, the Commander fully aware of the incredible healing power of a tiny little animal. More importantly, they offer a small feeling of peace amidst the chaos of war.

As you can see - I, too, disobeyed the general order, if only for a moment.

A little mascot trivia...

The first officially enlisted Marine Corps mascot was an English bulldog christened Jiggs. Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler inducted him into the Corps as Private Jiggs with a formal ceremony on 14 October, 1922, at Quantico, VA. Eventually promoted to the ultimate Marine enlisted rank of Sergeant Major, Jiggs presented the Marine colors throughout the world, and was featured in the 1926 Lon Chaney film “Tell It To The Marines.” Upon his death in 1927, SgtMaj. Jiggs was interred with full military honors. His satin-lined coffin lay in state in a hangar at Quantico, surrounded by flowers from hundreds of Corps admirers.

For decades, official mascots were called “Smedley” to honor their first inducting sponsor, Gen. Smedley D. Butler. “Chesty” became the most used named beginning in the 1950's, to honor legendary Lt. General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller Jr. For decades, the canine crowd pleasers have been a formal and indelible part of Marine Barracks, Washington and the Marine Corps' image.

Commercial artists have picked up on the association between the Corps and the bulldog over the years and have immortalized it on T-shirts and coffee mugs. Although other animals have been used as unit mascots during the Corps' long history, it is the English bulldog that has remained a constant companion to the "Few and the Proud."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Iraqi Insurgent

Subsequent to the airing of a recent audiotape allegedly posted by Usama Bin Laden, a friend e-mailed me and asked if the insurgency in Iraq is directly linked to or under the control of UBL. I offered my opinion about the insurgents our Marines face on a daily basis. This is my opinion only and not the official view of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense. The percentage following each category is my best guess and not representative of any official figure.

Few insurgents are fighting under the control of UBL. The insurgency in Iraq is broken into dozens of different cells, all with their own agendas and hierarchies of leadership. Most of the insurgent cells in Iraq are homegrown cells comprised of Iraqi military aged males, or MAMS, who are fighting the "occupancy" rather than fighting for Al Qaeda and it’s cause or agenda.

INSURGENT CATEGORIES – in my own humble opinion…

The first category of insurgents is the "swing either way depending on what's in it for me" types. You pass them on the street and they smile and wave. They often enter the local civil-military operations center (CMOC) seeking resident ID's or free handouts. They watch their kids receive free goodies, soccer balls, or occasional medical care, then go out and plant IED's at night. They do it for a couple of reasons, primarily money and fear of reprisal from the organized insurgents. Few Iraqis have stable jobs, so when someone offers them a $100 to plant an IED in the roadway, it's simply a matter of economics. These folks harbor no real resentment toward the coalition, yet are heavily influenced by the insurgency because they can make some quick cash, a difficult thing to come by. These are the same people who are threatened by other insurgents after the Marines have left the neighborhood. They’ve been seen accepting a soccer ball or getting medical help, or had Marines use their rooftop for an overwatch position. The insurgents threaten them or torture them following any contact with coalition forces. They use these threats to convince them to plant an IED or hide weapons for the organized insurgent groups. The key to this category is money and fear of reprisal. 25%

Category two is the day to day insurgent. He’ll smiles at the Marine who patrols the street. He’ll greet you with “As-salaam alaykum ,“ then take an pot shot at you as you turn the corner. These men are cowards, not guerillas. They have no will to fight when an equal or greater force opposes them. Planting IED's and taking pot shots is the only way they can and know how to fight. They strategically hide guns in houses, take a potshot at a convoy or patrol, then hide the gun and walk into the street unarmed, tossing down a soccer ball. They know that without a positive ID, the Marines will not accost them. These guys will go for days and not do anything against the coalition, then go an a little “boys night out” rampage. They’ll always end up showing their true colors and run from the firefight - cowards, all of them. They key to these guys is peer pressure and simply a lack of anything better to do. They have no job. Their friends fight the coalition and are an influencing factor, similar to the good kid who gets into trouble because he hangs around with the neighborhood bully. They engage in anti-coalition attacks the same way a teenager at home shoots street signs, stealing something on a whim, or breaks a window with a rock. Most don't even know why they do it. They’ll instinctively spout off a few verses of the Koran as a conditioned reflex, or as an excuse, and participate because other guys their age are doing so. This is the majority of the insurgency. 25%

Category 3 is the “homegrown” Iraqi full-fledged insurgent. He works independently or in small groups. It is his full time job, partly influenced by Al Qaeda, but not necessarily controlled by them or working for their cause. Similar to the prior group I described, these guys are also cowards. They’ll run and hide and would rather plant an IED than stand and fight. They believe we are crusaders and occupiers. We are infidels. Most are Sunni, former regime members or Ba’athists who are threatened by the Shiite dominance in Iraq. These are the holdouts, the guys gasping for air, watching their ship sink with no life rafts onboard. These guys believe they can fight the coalition and stop the impending spread of democracy. They think they can regain control and that they’ll actually get Saddam or one of his cronies back into power. It'll never happen, but they actually believe in their cause. They are the former political and military leaders who no longer have their power base. These are the guys who’ll belittle their neighbors for not joining them in their efforts. These are the guys who will shoot their own neighbors in the middle of the night or threaten their neighbors, convincing them to emplace IED’s in the roadways. These are the guys the mosques shelter and refer to as legal resistance to the occupation. This category makes up the bulk of the loosely organized insurgent cells that come and go as quickly as a spring shower. 25%

Category 4 is the most organized, though much smaller category. These guys are the organized Iraqi terrorists, the ones with money from outside sources, or from former government or military officials who stole thousands of dollars during their reign of terror. These are the guys who pay category 1's to plant IED's; the ones who provide the materials to make explosives; the ones push the belief that we are western infidels bent on destroying Islam, although they know that is not the case. It simply helps their cause, however perverted that cause my be. They are mostly Iraqi, probably hardcore Ba’athists or former Saddam Fedayeen, and are heavily influenced and funded by AQ, though they have their own hidden agendas. They are an organized, extreme version of the previous category. These guys make up the small percentage of Iraqi insurgent cells willing to execute hostage on television. They are often willing to die for their cause. 10%

Last category - category 5 is the foreign fighter, the religious extremist, the Wahabist who will fight America anywhere there is an opportunity. Iraq is simply a geographic opportunity. These guys are the smallest, yet the most dangerous category due to funding, resources, and most importantly, religious beliefs. Their fight has nothing to do with Iraq itself. The fight could be here, it could be in America, it could be anywhere in the world. Location doesn’t matter to this guy. Iraq is simply an opportunity to fight. Most are illiterate, poor and have been brainwashed since age 5 to eat, sleep and breath Islam extremism. These are the suicide bombers, the guys who believe they’ll actually get the 72 virgins when they die and go to heaven. 15%

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Giants Among Men

I interviewed some pretty incredible Marines over the last two visits with 3/7. They are typical of young fleet Marines. Cocky and filled with bravado, they call themselves an “old guy” or a “senior Marine” as a Lance Corporal (E-3) or Corporal (E-4). I chuckle to myself, as many were merely toddlers when my troops and I deployed for our first wartime experience during Operation Desert Shield. They enlisted in 2003, their recollection of September 11th simply a distraction that captivated their parents while their attention was focused on their next algebra exam or football game at school.

Barely out of high school, the youth of these young men is apparent. They love their video games and Sony Play Stations; they boast about their girlfriends and make plans to get an apartment with 3 or 4 of their friends when they return to CONUS, splitting their expenses to save money for beer and parties. Yet outside the wire, they magically transform into completely different individuals. Gone is the boyish grin, the horseplay and the thoughts of home. These attributes are replaced with steely grit and determination, strength and courage. They are all business, every bit of energy and every ounce of concentration focused on the mission and the safety of their fellow Marines.

These young men have experienced things that took my generation an entire career to experience. I’d like to mention a few of these young men, the future leaders of our Corps, and the reason we are still able to enjoy our freedoms at home, safe from the threats these Marines face on a daily basis.

There’s SSgt. Andrew Yellope, Weapons Company, 3/7. He joined the Corps at age 17 and was deployed to Afghanistan during the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). One evening, while sitting in a defensive position near Khandahar airfield, an illumination round set the brush on fire in front of his unit’s position. Over the next hour, twenty-six mines proceeded to blow up from the flames, the area laden with mines and unexploded ordnance. He escaped without a scratch and currently faces a similar threat of unexploded mines and IED’s in the mean streets of Ramadi.

One month ago, Corporal Matthew Conley’s platoon from Weapons Company was serving as the Battalion quick reaction force, or QRF in Ramadi. Lima Company hit and IED, then shortly thereafter, a secondary IED went off in the same vicinity. Corporal Conley and his squad arrived on scene within 7 minutes from receiving the call and assisted the severely wounded Marines, some with legs and feet missing from the effect of the explosion. They quickly hauled the wounded to “Charlie-Med,” the surgical facility at Camp Ramadi, only one Marine losing his life due to the quick reaction of Marines like Corporal Conley.

Kilo Company’s Corporal James Dodson, Jr. received his baptism by fire on April 17, 2003, during the battle for Husayba, a small town along the Syrian border. The city was crawling with organized bands of insurgents suspected to number around 300 strong. While pushing through the city on foot, Marines in another squad were wounded and Corporal Dodson’s team filled in the gap, taking heavy fire from insurgents who had set up sandbagged machine gun positions. Fighting the way through the cramped alley ways, he and his team spent the next three nights on a rooftop, sitting on overwatch to ensure the insurgents couldn’t escape 3/7’s noose slowly tightening around the city.

Corporal Adam Frickey, India Company 3/7, was conducting a patrol near an abandoned house in Ramadi and got a funny feeling when he passed an abandoned building. Taking a quick peek inside, he found himself staring at an insurgent strong point that had been recently vacated. Lying inside the room was a box containing 14 mortar rounds, grenades, and other ordnance and weapons that could have been used against his buddies or himself. Shortly afterward, his company conducted a sweep near the Euphrates that recovered approximately 90 AK-47’s, countless rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s) and launchers. All in a days work.

Like Corporal Dodson, Sergeant Ryan Bilbao, Platoon Guide for Kilo Company, found himself embroiled in battle with insurgents in the streets of Husayba in April, 2003. He recalled receiving a quick warning order and loading onto trucks to conduct a sweep of the city. Under sustained small arms fire, his platoon walked block by block to clear houses and building through the middle of the city, from east to west, all while being engaged by insurgents hidden within the city walls. In addition to his standard combat load, Sgt. Bilbao carried nearly 1400 rounds of ammo for his M-249 squad automatic weapon (SAW), a total weight in excess 100 lbs. He scanned overhead as Cobra gunships and FA-18’s rained fire from above onto the insurgents and their hideouts.

Cpl. Phillip Gutierrez recalled his first ride into battle on the back of an MTVR 7-ton truck. Excited and scared at the same time, he compared the experience to the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”, where actor Tom Hanks waits aboard a naval landing craft enroute to the beaches of Normandy, not knowing what to expect when the ramp of the landing craft opens up as they hit the beach. Cpl. Gutierrez and the other young Marines knew not quite what to expect, riding quietly into battle as sniper rounds snapped above their heads, the sounds of battle getting closer as the trucks rumbled along. Only hours later, he’d gained firsthand knowledge of the fright and excitement of battle.

Cpl. Jordy Vega, a Texas native who graduated from boot camp in 2003, is on his third combat tour 3 short years. Shortly after arriving in Ramadi in September 2004, his HMMWV was hit by an IED. The vehicle was carrying 9 Marines, protected only by the hillbilly armor installed around the crew compartment. Rolling down the road, their lives were changed forever when the IED was triggered, a bright flash of light and wall of heat hitting the occupants full force. Cpl. Vega awoke to find an injured and unconscious Marine lying atop of him in the back of the burning vehicle. Under small arms fire, he helped drag a number of his wounded comrades to a casualty collection point, himself wounded in the leg from the shrapnel of the IED. He proudly showed me the scar on his right ankle, a permanent reminder of that day and his time in Iraq. A purple heart will adorn his uniform in the rear, a badge of honor among Marines.

Major Bradford Tippett, the Battalion Operations Officer, summed up the actions of the Marines in his unit who do the job “no one else wants to do.” To liberally quote Major Tippett, “…the Marines do a job they don’t fully understand, but they know has to be done. The odds are often against them. They are scared and afraid but go out and do what’s required of them. The same kid, the same young men you wear out for getting drunk and stupid at 29 Palms is the same kid, who after a firefight, has done things that only giants of men do when they are here. They’ve done things we’ve only read about in the annals of history; that we’ve read about in the award citations from Guadalcanal and the Chosin Resevoir, things we wondered how anyone could do. I’ve seen it. I’ve watched these men, these Marines, do extraordinary things. They do phenomenal tasks that the American public will never have a full appreciation for, but should forever be appreciative of. These Marines are doing what they won’t. They are giants among men.”

Rolling Thunder

I spoke with Captain Dan Maze this afternoon, the Battalion S-2 for 3/7. Captain Maze spoke uninterrupted for almost 2 hours. It was a very good interview and he kept my interest the entire interview. Originally entering the Corps in December, 1998, Captain Maze was granted dual MOS's - Low Altitude Air Defense Officer (LAAD) and Air Defense Control Officer. After initial assignment to 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Battalion at Camp Pendleton, he attended the light armored vehicle (LAV) officers course and was subsequently assigned to the LAV Air Defense Platoon (LAV ADP), the only LAV-mounted Stinger Missile platoon in the Marine Corps at that time. Although Stingers are often thought of as man-portable surface to air missiles, the LAV ADP has multiple Stinger missiles mounted to her armor.

Surprisingly, the stinger variant LAV's actually belonged to 4th light armored reconnaissance(LAR) Battalion, a USMC reserve Battalion within the 4th Marine Division. This placed Captain Maze and his troops in an unusual circumstance - they were an active duty platoon working within a reserve Battalion. This was a tactically brilliant decision by Marine Corps Headquarters, as both the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions on the west coast (Camp Pendleton) and east coast (Camp Lejeune) would have squabbled like children if their sister Division owned the unit and they did not. It was a win/win situation for Captain Maze, as he was able to provide task organized support to both 1st and 2nd MARDIV, as well as having the opportunity to work with the reservists of 4th LAR Battalion during their drills and Annual training.

Following the kick-off of OIF 1, the LAV ADP split into sections and Captain Maze was attached to 3rd LAR as they moved northward toward An Nasiriyah during the initial "push" of the war. Captain Maze recalled how his convoy drove into an ambush near An Nasiriyah, not realizing the enemy was waiting for them in ambush positions. The enemy was estimated at 200-300 strong and was situated in a perfect U-shape ambush on both sides of the road. What the enemy didn't know was the LAV ADP variants are not only armed with Stinger missiles, but also have a turret mounted 25mm gatling gun that shoots approx. 1800 rounds per minute. The gatling gun is designed for used against airborne threats, but can just as easily be turned against ground targets, much like the mini-gun Jesse "the body" Ventura used to battle the space alien in the movie Predator. Combined with the armor, speed, and versatility of an LAV, as well as the "get some" attitude of the Marines in the convoy, the 40 minute firefight ended victoriously for the good guys with only 1 injury to any of the Marines in the convoy. A post battle examination of the killing grounds revealed a mess of weapons, notebooks, personal articles, and other items left behind in the deserted ambush positions. Most likely, the enemy figured they'd be shooting at lightly armored, soft skin vehicles such as the HMMWV's or 5-tons found normally in logistics trains, rather than well the well armored LAV's of 3rd LAR Battalion.

Captain Maze mentioned the "push" to An Nasiriyah and Baghdad. He's not the first Marine to use this term. I've heard it used a lot lately. Apparently, the Marines have adopted the term as a the latest reference to any sort of operational movement. They'll say "let's push" when a convoy heads out, or mention of a unit "push" whenever a patrol heads out to the field. New times, new slang.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Flagship of the Fleet

On my way back from the armory, I stopped by the MHG Motor Transport Office to speak with 1stLt Frank Cardamone. Lt. Cardamone is a Marine Corps Logistics Officer, currently assigned as the II MEF (Fwd) Headquarters Group (MHG) Motor Transport Officer. A native of upstate NY and the son of a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he'd always had an interest in the Marine Corps. That interest in service was put into action following the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Receiving his commission in 2003, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune, NC, where he serves with the II MEF Headquarters Group.

At Camp Fallujah, Lt. Cardamone's unit is tasked with the dangerous mission of providing convoy escorts and conducting security patrols throughout the city of Fallujah. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lt. Cardamone last November and noticed a unique item hanging on the wall of his office, a plywood shack located in the middle of Camp Fallujah. The item was a piece of melted aluminum/metal residue curiously formed in the shape of a camel. Noticing my interest in the item, Lt. Cardamone explained that the metal was a melted remnant from an up-armored USMC HMMWV (UAH) that was involved in an IED strike last July. The HMMWV, serial number 217300, was part of his Motor Pool fleet, a level one armored vehicle designed to protect its occupants from small arms fire and explosions. Though no amount of armor is guaranteed to mitigate the explosive force of an IED, the introduction of UAH's has invariably saved the lives of hundreds of Marines and soldiers patrolling the city streets.

Equipped with a communications suite that allowed it to be used as a command and control vehicle, the vehicle was referred to as the "flagship of the fleet." However, the title was short-lived. On July 29, 2005, 2nd FAST company was conducting a mobile presence patrol with several HMMWV's, one of which was vehicle #300. Traveling on a dirt road between Camp Fallujah and Al Fayil, the vehicle struck an IED planted by the insurgency and was quickly consumed by fire. Fortunately, the upgrades in armor saved the lives of all of her occupants, who amidst the confusion of the incident, were able to retrieve several important items of gear from the burning vehicle before she was completely engulfed in flames. The gunner escaped with 3rd degree burns to his hands and was the only occupant injured during the IED strike.

Later that day, Lt. Cardamone sent a recovery vehicle to the scene to remove the remnants of the damaged vehicle. Efforts to lift the burned hulk onto a flatbed 7-ton MTVR met with little success, as the unidentifiable remnants kept breaking into pieces every time the wrecker attempted to lift the charred hulk. The intensity of the fire was so great that the UAH frame had melted, leaving pools of liquid metal on the ground beneath the wreckage. The piece provided by Lt. Cardamone is proof-positive of the incredible destructive power of an IED.

Lt. Cardamone has donated the remnant of his "Flagship" for accession into the Marine Corps Museum artifact collection. It will be brought back to Quantico alongside a host of other unique items I have collected throughout this deployment. A former Motor Transport Officer myself, my hat is off to the courage of Lt. Cardamone's crew, the "Motor-Grunts" of the MEF.

I am once again heading to the field. I will post again upon my return.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Toilet Humor

Note: Please ignore this post if you are disgusted by adolescent bathroom humor... This post is merely a reflection of daily life at Camp Fallujah

Having traveled the AO quite extensively over my last two deployments, there’s no escaping the fact that Marines and soldiers are some witty, though crude individuals. Just go into any port-o-john (P-O-J) on any camp, anywhere in Iraq and you’ll find the sickest, filthiest, and often times, most bizarre humor you’ll ever read. There’s something about a clean P-O-J wall that cries out to be defiled by Marines and soldiers. I’ve visited hundreds of P-O-J’s since September, all through necessity mind you, and can count on one hand the number of P-O-J’s I’ve seen with nary a joke or remark about another service, a woman, a Marine/Soldier or someone’s genitals. That’s just the way it is, has been, and always will be, as long as Marines and soldiers continue to visit these plastic powder rooms.

I’m convinced the majority of our Marines and soldiers never made it past the fourth grade. Their spelling is atrocious and their sense of humor sophomoric. Regardless, I find myself laughing from time to time as I marvel at their wit and stupidity, rolled into one. It’s not just the male Marines, either – find any P-O-J marked “female only” and you’ll discover an equal amount of comments inside, or so I’ve been told.

I chuckle at the “canteen filling station” remarks and laugh aloud at the scribbled “officer eye wash station” comments. I grin at the arrow pointing downward to the plastic urinal attached to the wall, saying “aim here and win a prize.” In multiple P-O-J’s, “Army/Marine Corps reenlistment papers” is scribed above the toilet paper holder. You’ll always find the crude “Peanuts and Corn - all you can eat special” or remarks about hot fudge Sundays. Most start with an innocuous joke or comment that invariably causes a rippling effect, dozens of budding authors jumping into the fray to add their attempts at humor.

P-O-J’s are a chalkboard for the machismo, a blank slate on which to write a Marine or soldier’s achievements. Nearly every P-O-J has some remark from a Marine or Soldier regarding the superiority of their service, their unit, or squad. Acronyms cover the walls, many pornographic and unrepeatable. Others, like “Marines – Muscles are required, intelligence not expected” are commonplace and have been around for years.

A favorite in Al Asad is the “Ninja–Pirate–Samurai” debate. It’s starting to spread to other locations, as I’ve seen one or two Ninja remarks at Camp Fallujah. You’ll find Ninja, Pirate and Samurai rules or facts adorning the walls of P-O-J’s across the camps, the authors engaging in debate across a spectrum of toilets. You’ll find “Pirate law #4 - Pirates make Ninjas walk the plank” and the comeback, “Ninja rule #12 – when a Pirate sees a Ninja, it is already too late.” The facts, rules and laws are written everywhere, such as “ Samurai fact # 411, Tom Cruise was NOT the last samurai,” and “Pirate Fact # 514 - you spell it AARGH not HARGH, you moron.” Some are pretty random, like “Ninja fact 87 – Ninja’s don’t like gravy and rice”, and “Ninja fact #78 – Orange jump suits don’t make good camouflage.” There are also the oddballs that don’t fit into the standard “Ninja-Pirate-Samurai" rulebook, such as “Midget fact #358-A – hit a midget on the head with a stick – he will turn into 10 gold coins.” Try to figure that one out. An entire blog is devoted to the subject of P-O-J humor. You'll find it at

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Crazy Brave - EOD

Various bombs, pressure switches, and IED components discovered by 3/7 EOD. January 2, 2006.

A typical IED - the Marines worst nightmare, Ramadi, Iraq. January 2, 2006.

January 2, 2006

I stopped by the Explosive Ordnance Detail (EOD) spaces at Hurricane Point, manned by some of the bravest, albeit craziest, men in the Marine Corps. Men like Staff Sgt. Jones, SSgt. Spurlock, Sgt. Farmer, and Corpsman (HM3) Hicks of 3/7 brave the roadway hazards daily, keeping the streets safe for patrolling Marines and Iraqi Army (IA). These guys have set up a small display in front of their hooch, samples of IED’s they’ve recovered during call-outs into the city. The tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) of the insurgency is ever-changing, a continual nuisance to Marines in the field. It’s a simple cat and mouse game; we do something to defeat the threat, and within a week or two, the insurgents find new methods of countering our actions. The insurgents have utlized every imagineable means of planting and detonating IED's in the city of Ramadi. From radio-controlled devices to hard-wired bombs, they have caused hundreds thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths in theater. Besides the sniper threat in Ramadi, IED’s are one of the biggest worries of the 3/7 Marines.

If you wish to help our wounded warriors, you can send a donation to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a tax deductable, non-profit organization. Information regarding the fund can be found online at

Kilo 3/7

A Marine's Marine - Captain Phillip Ash, Kilo Company CO, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, Ramadi, Iraq. December 31, 2005

An Iraqi jundee (soldier), practices fireteam tactics in Ramadi, Demember, 2005

Former enemies, future allies - Iraqi Officers and staff posed for a photo, Ramadi, Iraq. December 31, 2005

December 31, 2005

This afternoon, I left Hurricane Point and traveled via up-armored HMMWV (UAH) to Camp Phoenix, the training ground for two Iraqi Army (IA) Battalions operating in Ramadi. Camp Phoenix is a training ground for the IA Battalions, and both receive mentoring and training from USMC mobile training teams, or MTT’s. MTT Marines live among the Iraqis and develop solid working relationships with the IA throughout their deployment.

Today’s journey to Camp Phoenix was by invitation of 3/7’s Kilo Company Commander, Captain Phillip Ash. Captain Ash, a former enlisted sailor who later wised up and quit the Navy to join the Corps, is one of those “poster” infantry Officers – a square jawed, outspoken, confident individual who eats, sleeps and breathes infantry in the offense. Following his interview this morning, the Captain asked if I’d accompany him to Camp Phoenix to receive a briefing from the IA regarding an upcoming mission they would be conducting in the city of Ramadi. This will be the first mission commanded entirely by an IA Battalion with the Marine Corps acting strictly in a supporting role.

Our arrival at Camp Phoenix was watched closely by a number of Iraqi soldiers and Officers preparing to brief their Colonel. A crude sand table was constructed on the ground with blocks of wood representing buildings and police tape simulating roadways and MSR’s. The briefing was conducted primarily by the IA officers through the use of an interpreter and went smoothly. A joint practical exercise was conducted for the next hour and it was quite amazing to see the IA actually practicing fire team and squad tactics without the strict oversight of Marine MTT’s. I was seing firsthand the postive results of our presence in Iraq.

Just as the practical exercise wrapped up, the screech of a rocket passing over our heads took us by surprise, immediately prompting us to find the closest cover. The rocket failed to detonate and soundlessly plowed into the dirt, a portion of its tail fin exposed. Turns out it was a 57 mm rocket, probably Chinese or Russian. We couldn’t quite figure it was launched from, but it had been aimed pretty well, as it sailed rather closely over our heads. We were lucky it was a dud, as the large number of IA and Marines present would have inevitably invited casualties. We did not wait around to see if any more rounds would be fired our way and buttoned up inside the HMMWV’s, hitting the road for the Camp Ramadi chowhall.

After chow, we geared up, chambered our weapons and drove back to Hurricane Point. Throughout the trip, I was as “useless as teats on a boar-hog.” Lacking my set of night vision goggles (NVG’s), nothing was visible outside my Hummer window. Had a “Muj” aimed an RPG my way, I’d have missed it completely, ignorant of the impending danger. Thankfully, all 4 of the Kilo Marines in my vehicle were wearing their NVG’s and were carefully scanning the route for bad guys. Another lesson learned - always assume you'll be gone longer than expected.

VIP treatment

Retired LtCol. Oliver North's signature in the "VIP" room, December 30, 2005

December 29, 2005

After several hours of waiting for my helicopter at the Fallujah landing zone, “Bhrama 65” touched down well after midnight. Although I'd already been at the LZ for 2 hours, I was told “Bhrama” was running at least 2 hours behind schedule. I spent the next 4 hours at the LZ lying restlessly on the dirty plywood floor, trying to make myself comfortable yet never quite getting there.

For the comfort of those awaiting their flights, the Navy “Sea-Bees” constructed several wooden C-huts, each a simple plywood shed large enough to hold a couple dozen passengers. These are no-frills shelters - just a floor, roof, and 4 walls designed to provide minimal protection from sandstorms, summer sun and winter chill. No windows, not even any paint. However, it keeps passengers elevated above the desert floor and keeps away the sand fleas that cause leshmaniasis, a nasty skin infection that eats away the skin of its victim. The “sea-bees” also ran electrical power to the C-huts. Each is outfitted with lights and a dual heater/air conditioner unit to stave off summer heat and ward off winter chill.

I had just dozed off when the thump of the rotors could be heard in the distance. The AACG-DACG NCO quickly popped his head into the door, letting us know the bird was inbound. We rushed to don our gear and headed out to the LZ, the evening pitch black and devoid of moonlight. Only the soft green glow of the helo’s interior lights could be made out in the darkness. Once aboard, the pilots throttled up and the helicopter shuddered violently, lifting up and pitching forward as we gained speed and altitude. Silhouetted by the glow of the cockpit instruments, the door gunners chambered their weapons as we sped away from the LZ.

The night air was cold and made colder still by the wash of the rotors. The temperatures hovered in the mid-thirties and despite two layers of clothing beneath my interceptor vest, I shivered uncontrollably throughout the flight.

Touching down at Camp Ramadi was extremely disorienting. Unlike the semi-lit LZ’s of CF, TQ and AA, Camp Ramadi is still governed by blackout conditions. Insurgents recently lobbed mortars into the base, apparently using visible light as their aiming point. Off base, the city of Ramadi is similar to Fallujah in early 2004. The insurgents are still very active and precious few civil-military operations are able to be conducted in town. Marines still occupy tactical FIRM bases or battle positions and when dismounted, hustle between locations, as snipers are still very active in the area. The Iraqi Army, or IA, are the only local authority around and patrol side by side with the Marines, still reliant on the Marine Corps for support.

It was nearly 4 a.m. when the helo sped away, leaving me standing in a darkened LZ, unsure where to go. Two National Guard soldiers were at the LZ and offered to drive me to an empty warehouse on the other end of camp, a place I could hang my hat for a couple of hours. Apparently, it contained a few mattresses and empty steel racks on which I might be able to catch some shut eye.

The warehouse was dirty and abandoned. However, just as told, it was littered with old bunkbeds and used mattresses. Finding a mattress with few visible rips and stains, I happily laid down (in full uniform, of course – I’m not sure what may have been crawling on those mattresses) and quickly fell asleep, much more comfortable than the plywood floor I’d been lying on earlier.

This morning, I found a convoy heading into the city and thumbed a ride. I arrived at Hurricane Point, a small FOB in Ramadi and home to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, my host for the next several days. The S-3 chief showed me my "room", a 7’ x 10’ toilet that had been transformed into living quarters for VIP's. I wondered if they were trying to tell me something! Made completely of tile and formerly holding a toilet and bidet, a bunkbed now fills the empty space. The water and drainage pipes are cut and sealed, but the fact that the room was formerly a toilet is still vary apparent. It sounds less than pleasant but is heaven compared to the living condition of the troops in the field. I've actually got a mattress and 4 walls - more than can be said for the Marines outside the wire in Ramadi.

On several occasions, Hurricane Point has played host to retired USMC LtCol. Oliver North, known primarily for his involvement in the mid-1980's Iran/Contra ordeal. Now a nationally syndicated anchor on the FOX news network, he's visited the FOB several times, visting with our Marines in Ramadi. It turns out that Ollie and I not only share the same rank, we've shared the same bed, on separate occasions, of course!! On the wall of my "VIP" quarters is Ollie's signature, a note to his hosts thanking them for allowing him to visit.