- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

HMM 268 FORWARD OPERATING BASE.
As in all past wars, someone "up the chain of command" has decided what the media can and cannot say, print or show you. Those of us in the Fourth Estate who are accompanying the combat units being assembled on the Iraqi periphery have been admonished not to report exact unit troop strength figures. We've been directed that we may not tell you exactly where we are. Instead, we are asked to euphemistically describe this remote and very austere air base as, "in the vicinity of the Iraqi border."
Until today, we were not allowed to tell you with whom we have been living. And quite understandably, we're still not permitted to report where we are going or when. For some, these restrictions chafe at what they perceive to be the "freedom of the press." Most, however understand the rationale for these limitations and willingly comply. For those who find the burden of "self-censorship" too onerous they can always "unvolunteer" and simply go home.
That option of course doesn't apply to another group of volunteers the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines more than 200,000 of them who are now deployed in the trackless desert along the Iraqi border. And on nights like this, with a vicious sandstorm blowing across the dry, flat moonscape, home is even more attractive than usual. Life in this extreme climate and terrain prompts a longing not just for the companionship of loved ones but for the simple pleasure of living without sand. One Marine said today, "I don't think I'll ever go to the beach again for the rest of my life."
Two months ago, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 was at Camp Pendleton, Calif., without any particular plans to travel though like all Marines, in this post September 11, 2001, environment, they were prepared for various contingencies. Then, on Jan. 10, the word came down: "Prepare your aircraft for immediate embarkation." Four days later the squadron's 12 CH-46 helicopters, their blades removed, were all packed and sealed, and on Jan. 15, the aging aircraft were lifted aboard a commercial ship in San Diego.
Accompanying the "birds," was a detachment of a dozen Marines, led by a sergeant. "Now think of this," said 1st Lt. Ken Williamson, one of the squadron's pilots, "here's a shipment worth more than $60 million being signed for by a 22-year-old Marine sergeant. Where else would you get that kind of responsibility at that age?" Where else indeed?
The rest of the "Red Dragons" departed from California at midnight Feb. 9 (for reasons still inexplicable to this old Leatherneck, the U.S. Marines never go anywhere in daylight). When they arrived "in country" on Feb. 11, the entire unit, officers and enlisted alike pitched in to "build tents and fill sandbags more than 20,000, that first week alone," said Chief Warrant Officer Sean Wennes.
"Why so many sandbags?" asked one of the horde of media that has descended on this remote desert air base. "Because these tents don't even stop a sandstorm. They sure won't stop a Scud" replied Cpl. Phillip Sapio. "Sometimes a sandbag is all you have between us and them." By "them," of course, the Marine means the Iraqis who deny even having any of the long-range weapons capable of carrying conventional, chemical or biological warheads into the heart of this desert base.
"Six hours after the helicopters arrived in port, they had been stripped of the weather-proof covers, had their rotor blades replaced and were ready for flight," said Lt. Williamson. "Some people think that's extraordinary. And maybe for some organizations it would be but for these Marines, this is what we do for a living," he added.
But picking up and moving isn't the only thing these Marines do for a living. They must also be prepared to fight when they get where they are going. The "Red Dragon" helicopters have to be ready at a moment's notice to carry Marine infantry in a helo-borne assault, resupply units in contact, insert reconnaissance units deep into Iraq and evacuate casualties. That means their "Frogs" the nickname Marines gave to these twin-rotor helicopters nearly 40 years ago must be constantly maintained, round the clock. Right now, that's difficult at best.
At this moment, shortly before 2 in the morning, Marine maintenance technicians are wearing gas masks so they can work on aircraft in conditions that can only be described as "extreme." The dust storm that blew in early in the evening has made the air outside appear foggy like it does along the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts when there is a large storm offshore. It has the strange effect of turning daylight into dusk, blotting out the sun and changing the hue of every man and machine. Visibility is reduced to less than 20 yards. The wind, blowing steadily at 25 to 30 knots, howls like a banshee through the antenna guy wires. But the "fog" in the air isn't water vapor it's particles of sand the Marines inhale with every breath, that they swallow with every mouthful of food. It whips in beneath the sidewalls and portals of the tents. It jams weapons. It seeps into every crevice and clogs the intakes of jet engines and the filters of the gas masks everyone carries everywhere, all the time.
Surveying the fury of the dust storm, one of the correspondents asked Lt. Williamson if the dust and dirt would affect the performance of his aircraft. The Marine veteran, tongue planted firmly in his cheek, replied: "Dust storms aren't allowed to affect us. It's contrary to Marine Corps policy."

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