HMM 268 Forward Operating Base -- On Wednesday evening, President George W. Bush addressed the nation, alerting the American public that the "opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign" to liberate Iraq had begun. Our president, who has displayed such strong leadership in these challenging times, showed focus and determination. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has consoled a grieving nation, assembled a global coalition to fight the war on terrorism and shown the world that the path to peace does not travel through Kofi Annan's United Nations.
Now, more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, joined by a coalition of international partners, is poised to begin the Baghdad Urban Restoration Project -- the next step in the war on terrorism.
Understandably, the spouses, family members and friends of these brave young Americans are concerned for their safety. Their fears are fueled by scattered reports that the troops are unprepared and ill-equipped for the mission that lies ahead. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Among those 200,000 troops assembled in the Middle East are the Marines of HMM-268, a medium helicopter squadron with whom I am "embedded." To accommodate the desires of our hosts, as well as preserve operational security, we're allowed to describe our location only as an advanced operating base in the vicinity of the Iraqi border.
Their mission is to carry Marines in the assault, conduct medivacs of combat casualties, and insert and extract reconnaissance units well inside Iraq. Their equipment, maintained by skilled mechanics of the Red Dragon Squadron, has been running in the incessant sandstorms that, like a Midwestern twister, provide little warning of their arrival and allow almost no visibility to navigate the featureless desert.
And while I have been to some far-away places in difficult and extreme climates, these sandstorms are like nothing I've ever experienced. They literally blanket the place with a fine dust that obscures and covers everything. It adds an additional challenge for the Marines who must try to protect -- and then clean -- the sophisticated computers, jet engines and firing weapons that are covered and coated with sand.
About a third of the Marines I have encountered in the units I've visited here are combat veterans. None of them wanted another war. But now that we've got one, these are the people we want fighting it. The Marines I am with have been here for two months. They have participated almost daily and nightly in training with some of the most sophisticated equipment and weaponry the world has ever seen. They are smart, fit and ready.
They are well-trained, and they know their jobs and are prepared to do them -- even when the worst begins to happen around them. That "can-do" attitude prevails with the pilots who are flying the planes and the troops who are getting on and off them. It prevails with every door gunner, every support gunner, every crew chief, and every one of the mechanics and technicians who keep these airplanes flying. It is an extraordinary sense of teamwork that gets them this far -- and for which the Marine Corps is famous. There is no airplane that launches without a complete check from the mechanics who are maintaining them day and night.
No discussion of readiness and morale of the troops would be complete without mentioning the finest medical specialists in the military -- the U.S. Navy Corpsmen -- who will be there the moment some soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is injured, and get them to the best medical attention that's possible.
The helicopter unit I'm with will be the first on the ground inside Iraq, and in the days ahead they, along with their counterparts from the Army, Navy and Air Force, will conduct some of the most extraordinary displays of military prowess in the history of war.
Those who will carry out this historic battle are lead by more senior officers and combat experienced noncommissioned officers who act like coaches for these young Marines -- many of whom recently completed boot camp and aviation specialty schools, and are fresh to this kind of experience. It's inspiring to watch these older men provide guidance, wisdom and confidence to these youngsters who are experiencing war for the first time.
Yes, war is dangerous and unpredictable. But don't believe the cynics and critics who tell you that our young men and women are unprepared or ill-equipped. They are more than ready and willing to carry out the orders of their commander in chief who told them that "the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you."
Mr. President, our troops want you to deliver to the Iraqi people the same message you gave to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines when you campaigned for the job of commander in chief -- "Help is on the way!"