SOUTHERN IRAQ -- While the appalling weather has temporarily grounded our chopper and others, the advance of coalition forces toward Baghdad continues. Currently, I sit amongst a half dozen Army and Marine Corps helicopters surrounded by a platoon of Marines who are protecting us from those who might try to engage us in the middle of the night.
The night is dark -- very dark. The sandstorms are vicious and unrelenting, making travel and operations more challenging and limiting our ability to deliver the close air and helicopter gunship support that Marines cherish. The constant barrage of wind, sand and dust blocks the moonlight, creating a fog that makes the night blacker than the inside of a cow. Nature -- Iraqi style -- has rendered our night-vision gear useless in such conditions.
Although the air support has been temporarily grounded, the respite, if any, is short-lived. There are a few moments to put away a well-deserved MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) -- which, my compliments to the military chefs, have improved a bit in the last 30 years since I regularly consumed them in Vietnam. They would taste even better without the sand, which becomes an unwanted condiment and garnish on every meal.
The Marines here like the beef stew (and sand), a few prefer the chicken and rice (and sand). I'm told the soldiers in other units go for the vegetarian pasta (and sand). Yes, eating in this weather has given new meaning to the word, "sand"wich.
After taking a few minutes to eat, the Marines return to the tedious and tiresome task of cleaning their weapons and trying to protect the vital parts of the helicopters from the swirling sand and dust. Once the weapons are cleaned and reloaded, it is back to patrol duty. The trucks and troops continue to roll, and when the weather clears, the air support will continue. The Marine convoys are all very heavily armed, ready to bring the full force of this armada against Saddam's military in a final offensive for Baghdad.
Despite the appalling weather and the adverse conditions, things are going "very well" according to Lt. Gen. James Conway, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The general told me that the Marines -- both U.S. and Royal Marines -- are "doing their jobs in a fantastic fashion." The weather has been harder on the Iraqis than it has been on us, insist these Marines of the 1st Expeditionary Force, who say they aren't going to let a little sand stop them from their appointed rounds.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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