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STYLE & CULTURE | LETTER FROM KUWAIT

War's razor edge

As they wait for possible war in Iraq, young, untested troops turn to their leaders for wisdom, reassurance.

March 17, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Marine Staging Area Eight, Kuwait — Marine Staging Area Eight, Kuwait

At military encampments scattered throughout this hostile desert that separates Kuwait and Iraq, the same question is being asked in quiet, uncertain voices: What's it going to be like?

As war looms ever closer, church attendance here is up, nerves are fraying and untested Marines and soldiers -- some barely out of high school -- are seeking reassurance.

"The young ones are coming to me and asking 'Master Guns, what's it like?' " said Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Garsheo Black, a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War. "I tell them: 'It's going to change your life, but you're going to get through it, just like I got through it and Marines have always gotten through it.' "

The faces here are young, earnest and still untouched by ironic detachment, cynicism and, for the most part, battle. Following orders is a given. President Bush says Saddam Hussein must go. End of discussion.

But some have yet to sort out the rush of emotions at being on the precipice of war: excitement, tedium and, inevitably, fear.

"I'm afraid of being killed," said Sgt. David Harriss, 21, of Clemson, S.C. "But I'm more afraid of not doing my job, of doing something that lets my buddies down and gets Marines injured."

They also worry about killing. Isn't it wrong? Will they be able to do it when the time comes? Many are turning to Lt. Col. Keil Gentry, 38, of Michigan, who's logged 17 years in the corps.

"One way we help them deal with the moral quagmire is to tell them that as Marines, as Americans, we fight only combatants. We will go out of our way to protect civilians and Iraqi soldiers who choose to surrender."

For weeks, 30,000-plus Marines from bases in Southern California have been living in tents in makeshift camps with names like Matilda, Iwo Jima, Ryan, Bullrush and Commando. Some camps, like this one, are so transient, so easily erected, so easily abandoned, that they have only numbers or initials.

Soon, as the troops either move north across "the line of departure" into combat or back to the Kuwait City port to board ships for home, the camps will be forgotten, consumed by the desert, where gales can top 80 mph and blot out the sun for days.

The sand is a fine, gritty dirt the color of watered-down butterscotch pudding. When the wind blows, the sand tears at the eyes and peppers faces; when the wind is still, the dirt seems to hang in the air for hours.

Church services offer a brief respite and are starting to get crowded. Yet, even during worship, the Marines are required to carry M-16 rifles and have their gas masks at the ready in case of a biological or chemical attack.

During a recent service at Camp Matilda, the troops sang:

In Jesus, there is victory

In him, there is no defeat

"For many of them, they are confronting the sense of their own mortality for the first time," said Navy chaplain Lt. Alan Cameron.

At a communications camp within sight of the Iraqi border, Cmdr. Frank Holley, a Navy chaplain from Fallbrook, chose for his sermon Judges, Chapter 7, the battle of Gideon versus the Midianites. Although he had an army of 32,000, Gideon sent all but 300 back. Armed with trumpets, Gideon's band scared the Midianites into retreat.

Bravery comes not from superior numbers, said the chaplain, but from stoutness of heart and belief in the cause. "The Marines understood that instinctively," Holley said. "These are young men and women of faith. Many are struggling to understand their faith at a time like this."

As they consider the violent days ahead, some are finding solace in their beliefs. "I'm going to rely on my training and on God," said Cpl. Jonathan Mueller, 20, of Ankeny, Iowa.

Black, 43, from St. Louis, counsels his Marines to remain focused on their mission, keep their heads down, advance cautiously, look to their squad leaders, provide covering fire and work as a unit, not as Rambo wannabes.

Most important, he tells them, don't be afraid of being afraid.

"When you cross the line of departure" -- the starting point for an infantry assault -- "anybody who does not feel fear is not human," he said. "Fear is good. Fear keeps you sharp. You just have to learn how to control your fear. It's not easy, but you just have to buckle down and do it."

At Camp Matilda, command post for the 1st Marine Division, a sense of anticipation, even restlessness, is building. Speculation about when the war will begin is integrated into discussions of sports and movies. As is a certain amount of edginess.

"A lot of people are nervous. They take it out on the cooks," said Lance Cpl. Jamie McWashington, 21, of Chicago.

One emotion that the older Marines want to stamp out in the younger ones is overconfidence.

"The most important thing we can do for them is to tell them it's not going to be a cakewalk," said 1st Sgt. Michael Miller, 39, of Jacksonville, Fla.

With youth comes impatience, and that too can be dangerous.

"Once you see people getting shot, dead bodies burning, and you shoot for the first time, you never forget that," said Black. "I tell them: 'Slow down, you're going to get there soon enough.' "

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