- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

RAMADI, Iraq - Living on a Marine base on the edge of restive Ramadi is a shock to a civilian’s senses. It’s end- lessly dusty and loud; the latrines smell; it’s beastly

hot. There is no color other than brown, and everyone is armed.

But mostly you marvel at how they go about their days: running with M-16s flapping against their backs for miles at high noon when it’s topping 115 degrees just for the exercise; wearing long sleeves, pants, suede desert boots and 30 pounds of armor and manning a gun on top of a Humvee, faces encrusted with dust; working at least 12 hours a day — every day, with no days off — under a constant threat of mortars and rockets.

You wonder where they find the energy to play basketball at midnight — the military police do, reliably, every night, sometimes listening to rap, sometimes heavy metal and once Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.

You wonder how they detach themselves sufficiently from the danger to teach fellow Marines to salsa after dinner. How in the dark of night, lit only by pale green chemical lights broken at their feet, they practice martial arts to a hypnotic drumbeat.

It probably has something to do with the fact that most of them seem to be about 20 years old, and many are in a combat zone for the first time — something they actually relish.

“Marines run toward gunfire, not away from it,” a senior commander said.

And the worse conditions are, the better Marines seem to like it. Marines at a dusty outpost on the Syrian border take great pride that they are not serving at “Camp Chocolate Cake,” as they refer to Al Asad, home of the 7th Regimental Combat Team (RCT).

Everything here is relative. To an American eye it is downright bleak. But inside the row upon row of plywood buildings, it is cool. A Marine doesn’t care how hot he gets as long as he knows he has a cool place to sleep.

An air-conditioned place to sleep is one of the things 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis requires for his troops.

It is a change from some previous practices in the military. In Afghanistan in the blistering hot summer of 2002, soldiers were chided for complaining about their rudimentary tents. Once the sun came over the mountains, they heated up quickly and it was impossible to sleep — a bad situation for soldiers mostly carrying out night missions.

Gen. Mattis also has introduced the notion of making the regimental command headquarters a psychological safe haven for battle-weary Marines. If they get jittery at the front, they can fall back on the RCT headquarters, where they can get cleaned up, a shower, sleep, counseling from other Marines, and medical attention.

“The regiment is safe in his mind. It allows him to catch his breath. When he’s ready to go, [he returns to his unit] and he regains his manhood, right there with his buddies,” Gen. Mattis explained over breakfast at the Al Asad camp, where he had come by helicopter to welcome a new set of Marines to the front.

“We’ve only had one guy leave in a division of 20,000 [in the last six months] and that was a pre-existing psychiatric disorder,” he said.

Last year, only three left out of the 25,000 in the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, a testament to what Gen. Mattis calls a humanistic approach to keeping military personnel healthy in mind as well as body.

The 1st Marine Division has had a remarkable record by another grim measure: suicide. Only two Marines in the entire expeditionary force have taken their lives.

“We just do not understand what happened. He was doing good,” Gen. Mattis said of one case.

Some of the general’s success in maintaining morale may be attributable to his policy of assigning every Marine a “combat buddy” — someone they trained with at home and with whom they are deployed, so a Marine is never alone in a unit as the new guy.

“People fight better when they know each other,” he said. “The more stability we give them, the more anchors they have, the better. [At this age] they don’t have the emotional shock absorbers that you and I do.”

He derides the practice in Vietnam where the newest guy was sent out his first night to stand point to see whether he would get shot.

“You don’t do that with human beings. You bring them in and let them be part of a team,” Gen. Mattis said.

A recent report on military mental health showed that an alarming number of combat veterans from Iraq are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, something Gen. Mattis thinks can be mitigated, albeit not wiped out, by hands-on commanders who watch for signs of stress and help troops deal with it.

“I don’t have any use for the strong silent type,” he said.

Gen. Mattis commands powerful loyalty and respect from his troops.

“He leads from the front,” one Marine noted in the cool and noisy morale, welfare and recreation tent at Camp Blue Diamond. It has a pool table, a pingpong table, foosball, Nintendo, a large-screen TV, 20 Internet monitors, a library filled with castoff magazines and paperbacks, and a seemingly perpetual dominos game that somehow the Marines have turned into a full contact sport.

When Gen. Mattis’ “jump platoon” goes out in a convoy — it is regularly attacked and has been hit by improvised explosive devices at least twice — it is not uncommon for the general to have his head out the turret, assuming the same risk as the gunners, say Marines.

A lieutenant colonel gave a more specific example of leading from the front: When the Iraqi-led Fallujah Brigade was created, Gen. Mattis decided it needed a test run to see whether the native force could actually keep order in the city after weeks of fighting. He sent a Marine convoy through town to see whether it would be shot at. He was in the convoy.

For all his tenderness to his Marines — whom he usually addresses as “gents” — he clearly enjoys a battle.

“The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event,” he tells about 200 Marines, sitting on the ground under a metal windbreak against a cliff in Al Asad.

“That said, there are some [expletives] in the world that just need to be shot. But you go on and find your next victim or he’s gonna kill you or your buddy. It’s kill or be killed,” he said.

“There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim. … It’s really a hell of a lot of fun. You’re gonna have a blast out here,” he said.

He also is icily clear about what he expects of the new Marines in the theater, who are much-needed reinforcements and relief for departing troops.

“You must know the commander’s intent: [Our motto] is ‘no better friend, no worse enemy.’ But I have added: ‘First do no harm.’ No harm to the innocent. No harm to a prisoner, ever. This is the Marine Corps, not the National Guard,” he barked, referring to the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib by an Army National Guard unit.

“They were undisciplined … excuses for soldiers. We will not cost America one ounce of its moral authority,” he said.

“How you treat people is very, very important. We’re not gonna become racists. [The enemies] want you to hate every Iraqi out here. … You treat those women and children the way you do your own. You make certain you don’t do anything that would smear the Marine Corps.”

The general related the details of a recent case in which a Marine administered an electric shock to a detainee he had in jail. He was swiftly court-martialed.

“He thought it was funny. It is, if you like five years in Leavenworth [prison],” Gen. Mattis said.

“You are free men. No one forced you into the Marine Corps. You are going to prove the enemy wrong out here.”

Gen. Mattis is as likely to mention a battle in ancient Rome as he is one in Vietnam when making a point to his troops. Every conversation with his Marines seems an opportunity for some history and criticism, usually so subtly that the Marine doesn’t realize he has been corrected. He feels like he is changing his path on his own.

Gen. Mattis, who seems thoughtful without being calculating, includes his team in his leadership decisions.

While in Al Asad after a brief stop on the Syrian border, he learned of a coordinated and deadly mortar attack on his headquarters base at Blue Diamond. It seriously injured five. At least one — a well-liked sergeant — died from his wounds.

There are plenty of Marines who have concerns about the original case for the war. But no one doubts what will happen if they are pulled out before the job is done: This place will devolve into murderous anarchy, and quickly.

There is a mental separation here. The debate about the war is one thing; the commitment to fighting it is quite another. They mourn every loss of a comrade, but they accept it as part of the job.

Late one night, a female officer was leaving the command operations center when she said to a corporal standing guard: “How are you, Marine?”

The corporal was alone in the pitch-black loggia of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, and would be there for hours more before he was relieved.

“Motivated” he thundered back, cheerily, from the dark.

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