Webmaster Note:  John Pendygraft, St. Petersburg Times Staff Photographer is embedded with HMM-162 and HMM-365 in Iraq.  Here are some of his reports.
Farewell until the fly-in

After a few days of waiting out a sand storm on a casualty evacuation mission, we made it back to the air base to meet back up with the guys from HMM 365 who arrived back there Monday. I didn't get to spend much time with them. I've decided to head back to Kuwait to catch my breath, then meet up with Times Senior Correspondent Susan Taylor Martin and continue work from there.

There's a popular rumor around camp that the 4th Infantry Division will be replacing our unit shortly. The desert climate has taken a large toll on the helicopters and the idea is that they'll want to get the ships back together pretty soon. So everyone is hoping they'll be wrapping up and heading back to the ship within a few weeks (but no one knows for sure). The pace has definitely slowed and everyone is looking forward to getting home.

They're already dreaming about the fly-in, which is when everyone flies in from the ship to U.S. soil and their awaiting loved ones. Pretty much everyone in the hooch has individually described it to me in detail and say it’s something I don't want to miss. The families watch the Marines fly in, they are ceremonially dismissed and everyone runs to the people who make home, home.

"It's indescribable. You can feel the emotions in the air. Some of the guys, like Sgt. Major Morefield, will be seeing their new baby for the first time. It's just incredible," Jane explained, with the same big smile everyone gets when they talk about it.

I'm sure I couldn't possibly be looking forward to it more than the Marines and their families, but I wouldn't miss it for the world. I've come to respect and admire the Marines I've been embedded with far more than I expected and I'm looking forward to meeting them again in a country where we have access to cold beer.

 


04/11/03 9:44am EST
 


Some Pepsi with the locals

The casualty evacuations were still on hold this morning, so a group of Marines decided to go out to the small Iraqi town of Al Shomali, a few kilometers from the base of operations. They intended to meet with some of the locals to gather information about Ba'ath party members in the area and to get opinions on what people think of the Coalition forces. Two majors, a translator, a security team, a BBC radio journalist and I went into the town.


 

An Iraqi civilian watches through her front door as Marines arrive in the town of Al Shomali, Iraq. Relations are tenuous and the Marines are trying to deepen ties with communities.

 


Driving in the back of a transport truck everything was peaceful but Lance Cpl. Bryan Nealy was edgy and at one point raised his weapon. The BBC reporter and another Marine told him to chill out. He did, but not before he got some stern looks from Iraqi citizens on the street.



A group of Iraqi citizens watches Lance Cpl. Bryan Nealy as a convoy of Marine Intelligence officers enters the Iraqi town of Al Shomali Monday to make contact with the citizens there.

 


We arrived and were immediately the center of attention. Everyone was glad to see us and after a few minutes we were seated in front of a grocery store where we were offered Pepsi. The translator and the Major started talking to a local leader who was respected because of his law degree and standing in the community.

They primarily were concerned about the Marines leaving the town unprotected, and about the release of several local citizens who had been detained for questioning. There had been a small panic in the community when the Marines moved a checkpoint out of town recently. The townspeople felt betrayed by this. The translator explained how Marines change positions often for tactical reasons and told them not to worry in the future if they move around.


Times photos - John Pendygraft

A Marine Sergeant for the intelligence battalion of the 2nd MEB (Marine Expeditionary Force) translates Arabic to English for Major Don Penny at an impromptu meeting with community leaders from the Iraqi town of Al Shomali in front of a small grocery store there Monday.The Marines drove into the town to gather information on Ba'ath party members, develop community relations and hear the locals' opinions about Coalition forces in the area.
 


The Marines wanted to know about locations of Ba'ath party members. After half an hour of Pepsi and jokes, both parties were making headway. Some maps arrived and the Marines followed the local lawyer to his home, where he showed them the information they needed. One of the Majors made a phone call and assured them their friends would be released soon. All this took place in a relaxed air of friendliness and laughter. Everyone wanted their picture taken and craved news of the war. They had heard the Coalition forces were being defeated, had lost Baghdad International Airport and were not in Baghdad at all.

For protection they wanted Marines to patrol the streets more frequently and fire shots in the air. The translator explained that Marines can't fire their weapons unless they are engaging an enemy, but the details were ironed out. Work will be done to restore water and electricity and to help organize a local police force.

"They feel at ease that we're here and we will keep our word," the translator said. "That's a sign of respect and very important in these communities."

I asked her if they were aware that sometime soon the unit could be, and most likely will be, moved out of the area.

"I never mentioned that to them, no," she said.

 


A look at technology



St. Petersburg Times staff photographer John Pendygraft sends pictures Monday from the Iraqi desert using an Apple iBook and a NERA World Communicator satellite phone on the Inmarsat satellite system. The small, three-paneled satellite dish in the photo provides the connection to the satellite. The phone gives Pendygraft a high-speed connection to the Internet for sending photos, text and audio. With the HMM 365 squad now working away from their main camp, Pendygraft faces the challenge of keeping the batteries for the iBook, satellite phone and his two digital cameras charged while away from a reliable power source.

04/07/03 12:06pm EST
 


Sandstorms with Stinky

"EEEEEEEEEEEExceeeleeent," proclaims Stinky (Major Jeff Prowse), imitating a mad scientist from a Bugs Bunny cartoon as he grabs a bag of M&M's from the flight line. "These are a score."

When told I will be joining him on a casualty evacuation mission outside of Baghdad, again he adds: "EEEEEEEEEEEExceeeleeent." We will be flying to a base of operations outside of Baghdad to be on call to evacuate any casualties for the next 24 to 48 hours.

Stinky is to pilots what NASCAR is to racing. He loves Ricky Rudd, the TV show Jackass, watching his sons try to learn new skateboard tricks and playing street hockey in the cul-de-sac.

In the past few weeks he has moved a 6-year-old boy with half his face missing, pulled out three Iraqi civilians and 2 EPW's (enemy prisoners of war) with shrapnel wounds, evacuated 11 walking wounded Marines out of Northern Iraq and pulled four Marines out of An Nasiriyah.



Major Jeff "Stinky" Prowse clecks the status of a sandstorm from inside a CH-46 helicopter Sunday in Iraq. The sandstorm forced the crew of a casualty evacuation mission to land short of their designated base of operations.

 

He, like all pilots, hates sandstorms. They rank among the worst of risks while flying in war. Before takeoff he tells me about a landing he made a few days ago in a no- visibility sandstorm.

"I stuck my arm out of the cockpit to check visibility and I couldn't see my fingers,” Stinky said. “I'll never do that again."

But today was bright and (by Iraq standards) relatively cool. Until, of course, we lifted off, flew north and hit a sandstorm. Stinky had us turned around and on the ground in short order.

"Within three or four minutes the visibility just went down. It was just a solid wall of sand so we turned around and set down," he explained.

His sandstorm experience the other day taught him an important lesson. The sand here is like talcum powder and the CH-46 helicopters they fly don't have the equipment to navigate through too much of it.
 


Major Jeff "Stinky" Prowse (left), Major John O'Neal (center) and Lt. Col. James O'Meara plot landmarks for a 20-mile flight from the point where they were forced to land during a sandstorm to a base of operations south of Baghdad, Iraq during a casualty evacuation mission Sunday. The weather eventually cleared and a decision was made to make the last leg of the flight using frequent landmarks. From the base of operations the crew will be on standby to fly casualties whenever and wherever needed.

 


So we sit in the helicopter, eat MRE’s and wait. After an hour or so the wind dies down a bit. We're only 20 miles away from the base of operations and the pilots decide we can make it safely if they plot frequent landmarks. They do, and we make the flight in about 10 minutes. The only tension comes when a crew member sees a tower Stinky does not see. They discuss it over their headsets:

Crew member: "There's a tower at 10 o'clock."
Stinky: "Not in sight."
Crew member: "At 10."
Stinky: "I don't see it."
Crew member: "It’s a LARGE tower at 10 o'clock."
Stinky: "Ok, got it."

After we land, Stinky comes out of the cockpit grinning from ear to ear. "See, I told you. No problem!" he says.
 

Times photos - John Pendygraft

Sgt. Bobby DeGeogre test fires a 50-caliber machine gun over Iraq during a casualty evacuation mission Sunday.

 


We check in with ops (operations) and he tells them if there is an evacuation tonight it will have to be done by land. There will be no flying until the weather clears. So we wait some more. The weather seems to be clearing and thunderstorms are forecast for tonight. For Stinky that's good news. That will blow the sandstorm away and pack the dust. Then we'll be back in business.

04/06/03 1:11pm EST
 


Grounded and grouchy

Lately here it's like living with a bunch of kids who have a lot of homework they don't want to do. I'm not calling Marines kids, as they are very cranky (and there's a good chance they might read this) and I have to live with them. But they are currently like a bunch of kids with unwanted homework.

When the war kicked off a few weeks ago we were right up front. Now we have to fly to the front. In the past few days we haven't been flying much. We may be moving forward soon, to be closer to the assault on Baghdad. That's the silver lining. In the meantime there are mountains of boring stuff to finish here first.

We’re grounded. That means no flights, no sitting around at night talking about what you saw flying over Iraq that day and no debating whether the flashes you saw were light arms fire or just reflections from something shiny. There are no more rumors that so-and-so saw antiaircraft artillery at such-and-such location, and no jokes about who said what over the radio.

They’re just making sure mail is forwarded, fitness reports are done, maintenance logs are logged, packing’s packed, I's are dotted and T's are crossed. And all of that is much less interesting to talk about when the day's done.


Times photo - John Pendygraft
 
Lt. Sgt. Red Adair (left), Captain Paul Kopacz (center) and Staff Sgt. Louie Aguilar (right) use a laptop computer in a bunker to prepare fitness reports Friday afternoon in Kuwait. "It's bureaucratic B.S.," Kopacz said. "I'm preparing report cards, basically, but it's important. This is how guys get promoted. It sneaks up on you and it all has to be done before we go forward." The unit should be moving forward to help with the assualt on Baghdad soon and very few missions are being flown while everyone is catching up on the less flashy necessities of the war.
 


The result (here's where I get into trouble) is a bunch of grouchy Marines. It comes out in little, gossipy, snippy ways. I'm snippy and I'm not alone. And the fact that it's stupid hot here doesn't help.

 

The worst grouches are the ones who have gotten everything done and are waiting for everyone else to finish. Smart money avoids them completely. For example: I like wearing my shower shoes (basically flip flops) around camp in the evening. For Marines this is a no-no. Shower shoes are for showering. Since I’m a civilian and my bosses are 7,000 miles away, I do it anyway.

But not last night. I went out in my shower shoes and I couldn't get twenty steps without a "nice combat shoes" or a "shouldn't you be in boots, sir?" After hearing a few of those comments I snipped back, "Nah man, combat boots are for jarheads. These are my Berkeley sandals."

The good news is we should be moving forward soon.


04/04/03 12:40pm EST
 


Supplies to the front



A long line of trucks, carrying supplies for Coalition Forces on the
front lines nearing Baghdad, winds through central Iraq Wednesday.


Times photos - John Pendygraft

With his clothes removed to prove he was not carrying a weapon,
an Iraqi civilian keeps his hands up and in sight as he crosses
a river in Central Iraq Wednesday to be cleared by Coalition troops
there.


04/03/03 10:23pm EST
 
Digging in on the front lines

Today we went up to deliver supplies to the 1st MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) outside Al Kut, Iraq. Earlier in the day the 1st MEF took a key bridge there and crossed the Tigris River to begin what should be the last push into Baghdad.



A Marine dashes to a waiting helicopter outside AL Kut on Wednesday in Iraq. The 1st MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) took a key bridge there earlier in the day to cross the Tigris River and begin what may be the final push into Baghdad.
 
 

We went with two helicopters, but just after taking off we had to circle back around, land, and check out the second one. It wasn't going to be able to fly, so we had to wait while everyone transferred to a new one. We then flew an hour or so to a refueling point, got gas, picked up a few troops and flew another hour and a half or so to where the 1st MEF is deployed.
 
As the helicopter was unloading I saw a few Marines digging foxholes by the forward-facing berm, so I went over to take their picture. They were friendly, but didn't have the same "cool, I'm going to be in a newspaper" enthusiasm as the troops normally have. I tried to put myself in their shoes and honestly, I couldn't do it.
 


Cpl. David Krueger of the 1st MEF digs a foxhole next to his belongings Wednesday, along a berm outside Al Kut, Iraq. Behind Krueger is an AT-4 shoulder-fired, antitank weapon.


I approached a Marine named David Krueger who agreed to be photographed. Behind him was the AT-4, antitank, disposable shoulder-fired weapon he will be sleeping with tonight. I wondered what would be on his mind. Would it be the fact he was sleeping in a hole along the last line facing Baghdad? Or that he was past Hussein's line in the sand for the use of chemical weapons? Or that he might have only one shot at an Iraqi tank with his AT-4? His family? Whatever it was, he was immersed in it.

I politely asked if I could get his name and he politely obliged by writing it in my notebook with a friendly nod. Then he went back to digging.

Trying to put myself in his shoes put a lot of things in perspective. I know I’ll be thinking of him tonight and hoping that prayers and best wishes are worth something.



CWO3 Larry Dominique (left) and MSgt Daniel Jessup (far right) get some rest in a CH-46 helicopter at sunset Wednesday after a long mission to deliver supplies to the front lines in Iraq.


Times photos - John Pendygraft
Staff Sgt. Red Adair takes in the sunset while flying in a CH-46 helicopter with the HMM 365 helicopter squad near the end of the mission in Iraq Wednesday.