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LETTER FROM IRAQ

Marines get it; do we?

It's a war of contrasts: misery, unexpected comforts, conflicting emotions. Most of all, what the troops want is to be understood.

June 28, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

AL ASAD, Iraq — The temperature is "a hundred and crazy."

Here in this summer of sand, everybody is within reach of lethal weaponry but nobody has sight of a cold beer.

They sleep in rows of flimsy prefab "cans."

And listen to rock 'n' roll.

For Americans in uniform, duty in Iraq in 2004 is some of what they expected and an equal measure of what they didn't. You wouldn't be wrong to say that life on the war front is something of an argument with itself.

They suffer the scalding heat, but they also enjoy plenty of air conditioning. Some days they wolf down cold MREs (meals ready to eat) in the field; other times, they enjoy second helpings from the ice cream freezer in the chow hall. They breathe clouds of dust and filth; yet many rest on comfortable mattresses and enjoy vast libraries of movie DVDs.

Some of them perform conventional combat roles here, patrolling and hunting insurgents. Ambushes, mortar attacks, mines and roadside bombings are grim facts of daily existence. But other troops have been occupied with the unconventional tasks of delivering playground equipment for schools, providing police, medical and leadership training, and fixing water treatment plants -- front-line conduits for millions of dollars that have poured into jobs and rebuilding programs.

On almost any day of the week, they will tell you two things for certain: (1) It requires superhuman effort to drink the gallons of water necessary to counter the heat, and (2) the American press and the American people misunderstand their deployment in Iraq.

Get to know them and they soften a little. This is not an ordinary war, so there is little wonder about public confusion. It can be confusing up close too.

As this week's transition to Iraqi sovereignty looms, they all agree on something else. The days are getting edgier as troops contemplate events that will determine whether they advance a step or their efforts are pushed back. About that there is no softening at all.

Typical perhaps are the Marines here in western Iraq, midway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. Here, with the infantry of the 2nd battalion, 7th Marines, Cpl. John Preston of Warsaw, Ky., stewed for a while. As homeland news reports filtered back to troops, he saw too much emphasis on Americans being attacked and killed.

He wanted to convey a broader story.

He wrote a song with his friend Lance Cpl. Nick Hoffmann of Middletown, N.Y. Hoffmann put it to pictures in a music video. Preston established his own website. The two are now battalion celebrities, and Preston is considering a contract offer from a California record company.

His acoustic-guitar rock 'n' roll ballad is called "Good Good America." It was inspired by the day he led a squad into an Iraqi town and was surrounded by 60 or so smiling schoolgirls. They chanted, "Good, good America." "That grabbed me," Preston recalled. "It was the first time here that I thought we were serving a purpose, doing good."

But his lyrics also capture the inescapable dichotomy of service here, the frustrating rub of it -- because in the shadows and alleyways behind the schoolgirls, there are plenty of angry men with their faces wrapped in scarves who sing another chant and provide a different chorus to his song: "Die, die American." His video can be seen at johnpreston.us But a warning: The opening scenes are laced with the unedited profanities of pumped-up Marines in the field.

Preston's personal tug-of-war about service in Iraq is part of a larger story of military life on the battlefield, told each day in a thousand other ways. A circular conversation that one hears frequently among youthful grunts is this: Why don't the Iraqis love us for all we're doing to help? Why won't U.S. commanders turn us loose to put down the insurgents? We want to go home. We want to fight!

At almost every base, even those far forward, Marines line up to use satellite facilities to call and e-mail home. Later, they complain about the difficulty of conveying to wives and families the nature of this assignment and the conditions under which they operate. Yes, many soldiers and Marines are attacked by mortars, rockets and remote-controlled bombs. Five rockets landed in the vicinity of the Marine unit as this story was written. But they tell their families: Please understand. These hit-and-run insurgents here are lousy mortar-men -- most of the time.

So what is daily life like on the battlefield?

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