This dispatch, published in the New York Times on Thursday, is by C.J. Chivers, a correspondent who, one reader said, “gets it straight and understands the Marines around him.”  --  Chivers has developed a following among readers with a military background, who feel he grasps the servitude et grandeur of the military calling.  --  This piece, which is accompanied online with a 19-photo multimedia presentation and a 6-minute narration by Chivers, describes the life of marines in Post 2, “a 6-foot-by-6-foot box that stands seven feet high” on top of the ruins of a collapsed building that used to be the Iraqi police station in Karma, in Anbar Province, Iraq.  --  Before reporting from Iraq, Chivers worked out of the Moscow bureau of the Times, from which he reported on the 2004 school siege in Beslan....



Middle East

By C.J. Chivers

New York Times
December 7, 2006
Page A23

[PHOTO CAPTION: Lance Cpl. Donterry L. Woods, left, and other members of the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines, approaching Post 2 in Karma, Anbar Province.]

KARMA, Iraq -- On the day after the ambush, two marines walked from their sandbagged quarters inside the Iraqi police station here, passed by a collapsed building next door and entered Post 2.

Post 2 is a 6-foot-by-6-foot box that stands about seven feet high on top of the broken building’s ruins. It is framed with lumber and plywood and surrounded by stacked bags of sand.

It has three windows, each covered by a bulletproof windshield designed for armored trucks. The center windshield, which faces a shuttered market, has been whitened by circular cracks where bullets have struck.

It looks as if it has been smacked by a sledgehammer. “Anything suspicious to report?” asked one marine, Lance Cpl. James A. Ullery, gazing at the traffic on the road 25 yards away.

“Everything is suspicious,” said the other marine, Lance Cpl. Donterry L. Woods.

The ambush happened the night before, in the darkness before the half-moon rose, after an Iraqi Army convoy visited the station to drop off food.

The police station in Karma is defended by several dozen marines and a smaller guard force from the Iraqi Army.

The Iraqi soldiers in the convoy warmly embraced the Iraqi soldiers living with the marines. It was a reunion of sorts, a respite from the war. They were all Shiite soldiers from southern Iraq, assigned to Anbar Province, which is Sunni territory.

The insurgents kill them even more often than they kill the marines.

After passing out food, the Iraqi soldiers drove out the gate in two trucks. They made it a few hundred yards and were struck by one of the insurgents’ bombs. Then the insurgents opened fire at the disabled vehicle, shooting at the wounded and anyone who tried to help them.

It was over within minutes. Four Iraqi soldiers were wounded. Three were killed, including the Iraqi unit’s most popular noncommissioned officer, Staff Sgt. Saddam Hussein. After the ambush, the contingent of Iraqi soldiers in the station spent much of the night huddled and weeping. In the morning several refused to work. They did not report to their posts.

The marines, who built the police station’s layers of defenses and man bunkers near the station and on its roof, put out extra men to fill in for the absent Iraqis. Part of their mission is showing the Iraqi security forces how to work, which in this case meant waiting to see how many Iraqi soldiers would desert.

They scanned out front. “You see a car parked with a trunk open?” Lance Corporal Woods said. “Snipers, they like to take out the seats of cars, and they sit inside with the trunk open and take a shot at you, and then somebody comes by and closes the trunk and you’ll never know what happened.”

“These people aren’t dumb,” Lance Corporal Ullery said.

“No, they aren’t,” Lance Corporal Woods replied. “That’s what gets you killed.”

Lance Corporal Ullery, 19, and Lance Corporal Woods, 22, are trained mortarmen. As often happens in war, the job they trained to do is no longer the job they hold. Now they are riflemen, in the Marine Corps’s fundamental job. They call themselves grunts.

Inside Post 2 was a first-aid kit, two fire extinguishers, a box of machine-gun ammunition, and a Ziploc bag of chewing gum tablets. An air-conditioner hung on the back wall. It did not work.

Lance Corporal Ullery and Lance Corporal Woods spend much of each day here, standing watch for several hours and returning to the station to eat, sleep, clean their weapons, and lift weights. Then they come back.

They chew a lot of gum. They smoke even more cigarettes.

It is a cycle they share with other marines from the unit that keeps the Iraqi police station from being overrun, Weapons Company, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines. When the sun is up, the bulletproof glass casts them in an aqua glow. Sometimes the monotonous rhythm is broken by insurgent attacks. So far the insurgents have always been pushed back.

“You heard about Jones?” Lance Corporal Woods asked, referring to Lance Cpl. Christopher L. Jones, 19, another mortarman with a rifle. He was inside Post 3. “He got his first K.I.A.”

A few days earlier, Lance Corporal Jones fired at insurgents in a car. He hit one in the head. “Yeah, he was so happy,” Lance Corporal Ullery said.

“Jones is always looking everywhere,” Lance Corporal Woods said. “I like Jones.”

The conversation shifted to the death of Sergeant Hussein, an Iraqi they had also liked. “He was in Saddam’s special forces before the war,” Lance Corporal Ullery said. “He fired at our tanks. Then he joined the new Iraqi Army. He was tough.”

“Yeah, he was the snipers’ favorite target,” Lance Corporal Woods said. “He killed a lot of insurgents. A lot.

“He loved his country, man, he loved it. According to his religion, he’s probably with a million virgins right now. And he’s probably making them virgins do dismounted patrols.”

As the day passed, the Iraqi soldiers who had refused to work came back on post. They had been persuaded to pick up their rifles and work by the Iraqi translator who works with the marines. The translator asked that his name be withheld for his safety. Now everything was back to the Karma police station’s version of normal. The marines watched and waited, wondering what shape the next attack would take.

The day before, a few hours before the ambush, insurgents fired four rifle grenades into their compound. They exploded between Post 4 and Post 5.

“You think a rifle grenade is going to go off today?” Lance Corporal Woods asked.

“Nah,” said Lance Corporal Ullery.

“Nah,” said Lance Corporal Woods.

An Iraqi dump truck approached Post 2. There is a speed bump on the road directly in front of the post, about 30 yards away. Throughout each day Iraqi dump trucks approach the speed bump, downshift, and pick their way over it.

Since August the battalion had been attacked by two dump trucks packed with explosives. Now, each time a dump truck approached the speed bump, Lance Corporal Ullery and Lance Corporal Woods braced themselves.

“I hate that,” Lance Corporal Woods said as the truck clanked into higher gear and pulled away. They looked at the crowd up the street. “Usually before the firefights the people disappear,” he said.

A tanker truck approached the bump. “I hate fuel trucks,” Lance Corporal Woods said.

“Yeah,” Lance Corporal Ullery said, “that would be a pretty big explosion.”

Two nights before, Lance Corporal Woods sat along a sandbagged wall at the police station’s entrance. Three of his friends in the battalion were killed, he said. Another was in a coma. A fifth was shot the previous week. A sixth was struck in the face by bomb shrapnel.

Now he was talking about a firefight at the police station the week before, which everyone had survived. The insurgents attacked from at least two sides. The marines repelled them.

“Some people out here I didn’t like,” he said, speaking of his platoon. “But now, we got real close. We got real close, let me tell you. We need each other. It comes down to it, in a firefight, we’re brothers.”

Another marine, Lance Cpl. Daniel B. Hedgecock, 25, sat in the blackness to his right. “But I could definitely go without another firefight,” he said.

They were quiet for a few minutes. “After being here three or four months everybody’s got a lot going on in the head,” Lance Corporal Woods said. “Everybody wants to come home.”

He thought about that sentence. “Alive,” he added.

Superstitions can run wild in war, and there is a rumor among the marines in Anbar that Iraqi snipers will not shoot black people, because they are worried that it will bring them demons.

Lance Corporal Woods is black. He smoked in the darkness and said it had been a subject of conversation in his unit, Mobile Assault Platoon Five. “Valdez and me talked about that,” he said. “He’s Hispanic. He said, ‘Man, I’m going to paint my skin darker, man.’ That’s what he said. And the next day he got shot.”

“I hate this place,” he said.

Now he sat on Post 2 again, in the light, watching the advancing trucks.

“Out here,” he said, “it really makes you love your country. I love my country, man. I love my country. I didn’t hate my country before, man. But I had some problems with it.”

“The United States of America,” he said. “That sounds like heaven right now.”