The flight to Saudi Arabia via commercial airlines was surreal.
‘Please place your M-16’s under your seat, muzzle facing outwards’ isn’t a stewardess instruction you’ll hear every day. We were fed every 2 hours, watched continuous onboard movies, our every whim catered to. It had just a hint of that ‘lamb being led to slaughter’ feel to it. For me, that flight over was full of angst, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Too much time to think about where we were going, what we might have to do there, and what we’d left behind.
After more than a day of flying, we descended to no man’s land. Stepping into the blindingly bright daylight of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you didn’t just feel the heat, you could smell and taste it. A strange thing I’ve noticed in my travels to the far off corners of the planet, but every place on Earth has a unique smell. This place smelled dusty, barren, and strange, the heavy air a mix of petroleum fumes, exotic spices, and heat vapor. Of all the foreign lands I’d visited, this one struck me from the outset as most foreign. No wonder they’ve been fighting each other for thousands of years I silently thought to myself.
We gathered our gear and threw ourselves into waiting trucks. After a short drive we disembarked at our new temporary home, a series of vacant airplane hangers in which we would alternately bake and freeze for the next several weeks. Around us, other Marines from unknown parts followed suit. I remember my heart racing during these first few hours – silly in retrospect, we were months from truly being in harm’s way – but adrenaline is a funny thing, it won’t stand for reason. The brain stimulates, the body responds, and my brain was telling me we were here to throw men forcibly from an invaded country. That night after getting settled in, I gathered my NCO’s and told them we were going to PT (Marine-speak for exercise). I figured we all had a little adrenaline to burn off.
As dusk approached and my 35 man platoon and I headed into a 3 mile run around an unknown airbase, they sang. ‘Jodies’ we call them – songs about killing things, the girl we left back home, what some other non-Marine is doing with her – Marines sing a lot. It’s like a pre-emptive dose of pain and suffering, they constantly remind themselves of how hard their jobs are, how no one in their right mind would want to do what they do, and how, in the end, Marines are pretty much ****ed. Better we embrace it in song than let it bother us in real life. So we ran and we sang, and we sang with such ferocity and passion, not the usual lackluster winded refrain, that it was almost frightening. The sounds of our songs reverberated off the aluminum hangars echoing into the strange foreign night like a battle cry. My platoon was already changed, like a teenager left alone at college that first night, coming to terms with where they were and who they’d need to be. And they were looking at me to lead the way.
We stayed in the Easy Bake Ovens (as we called them) sleeping on cots for a couple weeks. We’d gotten there ahead of most of the support forces, so no one really knew what to tell us to do. We slept on our cots, held meetings, cleaned our weapons (in the absence of anything else to do, Marines clean weapons). We handed out freshly-printed US Government training booklets called ‘Identifying the Iraqi Threat and How They Fight’ and studied them. They described the methods and weapons of the Iraqi forces. We memorized silhouettes of mostly Soviet-supplied armor and aircraft, and practiced handy Arabic phrases such as ‘Halt!’ (‘Qiff!’), ‘Lay down your weapons!’ (‘Ilqi slaahak!’), and ‘You are a prisoner’ (‘Inta sajeen!’). Other phrases we might have found helpful (‘Do not attack us with nerve gas!’, ‘How do you stop this diarrhea?’, and ‘Get out of Kuwait and save us all a lot of trouble!’) were not covered in our phrasebook. We studied the many poisonous snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies we were about to meet up close and personal. And we PT-ed and sang.
Support forces – cooks, mechanics, armory staff, chaplains, and engineers soon arrived, and what we would come to refer to as ‘the good life’ (ie..some semblance of civilized existence) came to an abrupt end. We packed all of our gear and weaponry up, and moved to a makeshift base at a Saudi Arabian military camp on the coast of the Persian Gulf. We would not see a city or real amenity again for 6 months. My battalion, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines, the ‘Lava Dogs’, were tasked with reconnaissance and defense of the main coastal highway that ran along the breadth of Saudi Arabia, straight into the heart of our objective, Kuwait itself. And to get ourselves ready for something much more intense.
After a brief stint at our makeshift base camp (where at least tents, cots, and an occasional hot shower were available), we moved out into the desert. Our Battalion was organized with one company as a helicopter borne force, one assigned to trucks, and one (my company, Bravo) to AAVs (amphibious assault vehicles). AAVs are ugly, beautiful machines. Designed to be driven off the ramp of a special Navy vessel (an ‘LST’), the armored tracked vehicles propel through open-ocean waters via powerful water jets. Once on the beach, their tank-like treads and powerful diesel engines allow them to go almost anywhere at high speed. Inside, a squad or so of Marines are crammed like the latest meal into the dark underbelly of a mechanized beast.
It’s not a fun ride for the jarheads inside. They’re blind, oblivious to any threat which might be sighting in with evil intent, bounced around against the steel interior at will, subjected to a deafening roar of engine noise, and forced to breathe a mixture of air and diesel fumes. When the objective is reached and ramp lowered, Marines explode grunting and squinting out of the rear to assault the enemy. That’s the idea anyway. Truth is, we were thrilled to be the mechanized company. It meant less walking, and working with the ‘Amtrakers’ (as we called them), who were always an especially salty, profanity-rich, and unprofessional bunch. Besides, the AAVs were equipped with a nasty .50 cal machine gun, and Mk-19 40mm grenade launchers that could spew a fearsome rain of grenades on approaching infantry that was truly impressive. In short, they were a bad-ass, if not comfortable, way to get around.
Our stint at the tent-city we called base camp didn’t last long. Soon, we moved along with our mechanized friends up the coastal highway. We dug-in to positions on either side of the highway. It was brutal hard work, but we were motivated. Rumors flew everywhere. Saddam would launch Scud rockets laden with nerve or mustard gas at us any minute. Saddam would send the Republican Guard into Saudi Arabia in a pre-emptive strike at US and coalition forces. You didn’t know what to believe. All we knew is that we weren’t going to get caught unprepared. So, brandishing our ‘E-tools’, we dug. E-tools are collapsible shovels Marines carry and use for a variety of means, digging, hammering, even as a weapon if it came down to it, hence the nickname of a modern day Marine legend, ‘E-tool Smith’ (Ray Smith, legendary Marine infantry officer). We dug 4-6 feet down into the sand, sweaty, back-breaking work. We filled sandbags, thousands and thousands of them, because next to being underground, they provided the only protection from small arms fire to be had in a desolate, flat land with no significant terrain features. And we built overhead structures with anything we could find – wood, cardboard, camouflage netting, to mask our location and provide some protection from shrapnel. Once dug-in, we spent hours deciding where best to deploy our weapons, and practicing what we would do if/when Saddam did have the stupidity to send his troops down that coastal highway. At night, we boarded our AAVs and practiced night movement and tactics.
Even during the day, it was almost impossible to figure out where you were. As a Marine Lt., there is no greater sin than not knowing, at all times, where you are. Not knowing where you were, exactly where you were, meant you were alone. You couldn’t call for unit support, you couldn’t call in artillery fire, you couldn’t call in air support. You had to know where you were – always. In a flat country where the only occasionally identifiable terrain features were ‘sabkha’s’, old dried out lake beds which were really salt flat depressions of only an inch or two, or ‘wadi’s’, dried up riverbeds, this was no easy feat. Small rises, which we used the Hawaiian word for mountain (‘Pu’u’) to describe, became major beacons in the absence of other major features. Fortunately, as we’d left Hawaii, we’d been issued the betamax of GPS technology, the very first versions of the technology you can now get in a Honda civic. The things weighed 10 lbs, and could take up to 10 minutes to locate the 3 satellite signals necessary to triangulate your position, but when they worked they were a God-send.
My Marines and I were ready for anything at any time. But it was hard to know from which direction danger might approach. When she arrived, we never saw her coming. We were doing yet another night movement, this time with the entire Battalion. We were in our AAV’s, the rest of the unit on foot or in trucks. On a good night, with a decent moon reflecting off the sand, you could see incredibly well. But this wasn’t one of those nights. With no moon in sight, it was pitch black, and even our night vision goggles were of little use. The movement was led by our Dragon platoon, anti-armor missile launchers mounted on Humvee’s. My buddy, fellow Lt. Mike Monroe, was in the lead vehicle when it went over the top of a berm. It was too late when the driver realized they were driving over the wall of an entrenched gravel pit. The Humvee flipped over the embankment, fell the 20-30 feet to the bottom, and landed upside down.
My friend Mike, a gregarious teller of jokes, loved by everyone who knew him, was sitting in the gunner’s seat atop the vehicle when it went over. It took agonizing minutes fumbling chaotically in the dark before we could figure out what had happened. We’d experienced our first casualty of Desert Shield. Mike Monroe had broken his neck. He was gone forever in a stunning blink of an eye. We did the best we could – holding a memorial service in the oppressive heat of the desert for our friend Mike, wondering what his family would go through when they got the news, and wishing we could make better sense of it.
He wouldn’t be our last training casualty.