KUWAIT, NEAR THE IRAQI BORDERThey say they are growing wise here in the desert, where the ground shakes with the thunder of their heavy artillery, where any momentary quiet is shattered by the scream of low-flying jets and combat helicopters firing their loads. But if so, it is wisdom of a certain sort. For the marines of Fox artillery battery, day and night blend with the repetition of the mission, time measured in the seconds they have to load, fire, and dig in.
Experts they are, every last one of them, a shovelful at a time, digging like they are trying to tunnel all the way back home. "The worst is when you dig a big hole and then have to fill it, and then they take you back to the same place to dig another one again," says Lance Cpl. Chris Secondino, 19, of Branford, Conn., wiping away the dirt caked on his brow from his last firing exercise as a howitzer gunner. "I tell you what, I can certainly dig a good hole now."
So it goes, before war has even been declared, for these men of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine division, known by the nickname "The Cannon Cockers." First this patch of land, then that one. Moving at night, lights off to avoid detection. Hauling the shells and powder out. Load. Fire. Digging in. Waiting. Thinking about the fury of their shells, were they to soon to find flesh in Saddam's Iraq. "It must be like D-Day over there when our shells hit," says one. "I think I hear Saddam screaming," says another.
There is little in the desert to break the routine, except for rumor and news. Out here rumors spread faster than the truth: Iraqi spies are trying to infiltrate bases; an elite Iraqi guard has tried to kill Saddam with an RPG. And the truth can sometimes bring men down. The word that thousands are protesting the war at home and abroad casts a pall. Heads lowered, men pick at the dirt with their fingers. They wonder what's so hard for some people to understand. "Well, I got spit on at Boston Commons once, called a baby killer," says Lance Cpl. Lance Harmon, 24, of Boston, breaking the silence.
The idea of mass protest doesn't sit right with their view of the world and their place in it. They have a hard time contemplating thousands of Americansthe same number many expect to see at their homecoming paradesprotesting their mission at hand. "Don't they know we're here defending people who don't have the ability to defend themselves?" asks Corporal Harmon. It does little good saying most of the protests aren't against them but against the war that may kill them. This is not something they reckoned on, and it's not the sort of thing they hear about in those few cherished letters from home.
Mail call, that's real news! Good news. The kind of news every marine understands and can accept. Secondino has been waiting for one of those letters for more than three weeks, about as long as he's been waiting to get to a base where he can take a real shower. It has become a running joke. There have been questions: Does Secondino really have a mother? For now he is a ravenous reader of other men's letters. From wives, girlfriends, parents, or children, it matters little; Secondino isn't picky. He likes to gaze at the pictures too. "Hey, she's hot," he says, looking for the umpteenth time at a picture of Sgt. John "Duce" DeMatteo's girlfriendor at least one of the seven women Duce claims are currently writing him. "Watch it Secondino," Duce fires back.
Besides digging and firing, reading letters is the order of any day out here. "It's the most important thing these men can receive," says Sgt. Jason Schaffer, 26, of Detroit. The leader of Gun 4's crew, he is a father figure and friend to these men. He is also probably the biggest recipient of letters. So far, he's gotten six from his wife, Beth; a Valentine's day card "signed" by his two children, Jacob, 2, and Baily, 4; and a tracing of their hands on a piece of paper. "Gosh, my son's hand is really getting big," he says to no one in particular. For families back at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the marine life is a difficult one, with six out of every 18 months spent on deployment. A picture or an occasional letter "is what you live for out here," adds Schaffer, known as "Beachhead" to his crew. The letters are perhaps especially important to him, since his son, Jacob, who has Down syndrome, recently had his fifth operation to repair heart defects. Jacob is already on his second pacemaker, the first of which burned out and now rests on a chain around Schaffer's neckhis good-luck charm and a constant reminder of his son back home.
A good portion of the men of the Fox battery have married recently or had children. Old-time sergeants on the line note that many will end up divorced before they ever get back home. "They think if they knock them up, they will be faithful while they are gone," says one, waiting for night movements to begin again. "But many of these guys are young and their wives are young. Back home they party all the time, and while they are gone their wives and girlfriends keep partying. They meet people. They move on." That's why young marines living in the desert should be unmarried, sergeants say. Many even think there should be a regulation against it. Dear John letters: bad for morale. Makes for sluggish gunners.
The radio cracks with the voice of Gunny Sgt. Richard Jefferson yelling. But the men of Gun 4 can't hear what he's saying. Time to field-clean the radio. Bang. Bang. Up and down on the hard-packed earth. Now clear as a bell. This time it isn't an order of coordinates to fire but one of the sergeant's famous songs. Must be time for some shut-eye, if not on perimeter duty. "Don't forget about my cannon cockers, cuz they'll light you up like a fire-cracker," Jefferson yodels, before the radio needs another field cleaning. "Cuz before you know it, we'll be coming home, drinking beer and p---ing foam."
Home seems more a figment now. This is real, "where the rubber meets the road," says Jefferson, who at 36 has put 18 years in as a marine and will most likely retire soon. But to what he does not know. With no college, on the outside he's nothing but a "chief fry cook at the Burger King." Here, he is one of America's point men, running millions of dollars in deadly U.S. hardware through the desert and keeping hundreds of kids on the right side of the line. The responsibility is immense. One wayward shell. One accidental death. His men feel the same. It's like an exclusive club of superheroes. Few want to leave; when they do, they never quit club.
And what will come in Iraq is proof of their purpose on the earth, a bit of their destiny bleeding through. "Look, we're just a pinpoint on a map," Jefferson concludes. "And I don't get all wrapped up in us being the 911. But us being here is what allows people back home to protest and say what they will. Baby killers? We do what we are told out here. But maybe what we are told to do, what we do, is important." You want proof: "Just take a look at life in much of the rest of the world."