|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.
|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.
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
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.
"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
|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.
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
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.
|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
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.
|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
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.
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.