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.
When we're able to get news reports, I've seen over the past few days that even with hundreds of reporters embedded with the units all over the region, it hasn't taken long for the Iraqi propaganda machine and the America-bashers in the press corps to report to the American public that U.S. troops are not taking necessary precautions to protect Iraqi civilians from harm or not enough care is being shown for their well-being. Let me put that nonsense to rest.
A few days ago, just before meeting up with the 5th Regimental Combat Team, the Marines I'm with flew a casualty evacuation mission -- not for a wounded U.S. Marine, but for a young, 15-year old Iraqi girl who was seriously injured, although it was unclear how her injury occurred. The Marines and Navy corpsmen who treated her wounds and gave her medical attention put themselves at great personal risk to evacuate this young lady. She was then air lifted all the way out to the USS Saipan (LHA 2), whose mission, in addition to embarking a Marine Landing Force, is to provide for evacuation and disaster relief. The Saipan and her crew can carry a full Marine Battalion Landing Team and care for up to 400 patients. It is no wonder her motto is Omnia Facimus -- "We do it all."
During our travels, we have also encountered the great, black plumes of smoke that emanate from the burning oil wells ignited by Saddam Hussein. As our helicopter flew around one of these conflagrations, one Marine commented to me, "What kind of S.O.B. would burn his own country?" The answer of course, is the same evil tyrant who would torture and kill his own people.
The environmental and economic cost of Saddam's oil well sabotage would be much worse were it not for these Marines. One of the reasons we moved in early is because Saddam lit his wells on fire. As Lt. Gen. Conway told me, "We moved our attack up -- and moved it up again" to prevent Saddam from lighting up any more of his oil wells. One of the goals, Conway said, is to save that precious resource "for the Iraqi people."
The Marines are moving rapidly across the desert -- fighting day and night, stopping only to refuel and rearm, and continuing their press toward Baghdad. Conway told me they have "covered a lot of ground" and are accomplishing their objectives "on time or even ahead of schedule." He cautioned that to date the fighting has been against Saddam's regular army and we "haven't yet come up against the varsity." But from this old Leatherneck's perspective, varsity or not, the esprit de corps of these young Marines is unparalleled, and they are ready for any challenges that lie ahead on the road to Baghdad.