Marines like to boast that they are not afraid to die, but Matthew Vanegeren admits he would rather make it home to tell war stories to his friends in Green Bay, Wis. Vanegeren, 20, a corporal in a storied company nicknamed "Suicide Charley," said he also knows he would be devastated if his unit were not in the middle of the action in a war against Iraq.
That contradiction occupies the thoughts and conversations of many Marines here at the U.S. military camp closest to the Iraqi border, a tent city about 20 miles south of the line. "That is the real nightmare scenario," said Sgt. Justin Campbell, 23, of Columbus, Ohio. "It's like going to the Super Bowl and sitting on the bench. Even in training back home, if you're not the lead unit you feel screwed. Being held in reserve is terrible."
These members of the 7th Marine Regiment, along with elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, would likely be among the first U.S. troops to cross the border if an invasion were ordered, and the first to encounter whatever obstacles were waiting on the other side. Most Marines here say they would not have it any other way. All their training has prepared them for this moment, they say, and while they have no wish to die, if there is fighting to be done, they want to be the ones to do it.
"Part of being a Marine is believing you're the best, and that if someone has to fight, it should be you," Vanegeren said. "We chose the Marines because of what they do. We chose it 'cause it's hard."
Those who spoke with recruiters from other service branches before signing on said that unlike the others, Marine recruiters did not dangle money for college as an inducement to enlist. As a result, these troops say, they joined knowing that their commitment meant they could be called on to fight.
Jonnie Seely, 19, finished infantry school in late January, and three days later was on a plane to Kuwait. He was still putting his gear together the night he left the United States, he said. "All through boot camp, the instructors said 'get ready, you'll be going to war,' "said Seely, of Bullhead City, Ariz. "I didn't know how soon it would be, I'm just glad to have the chance to put the training to use."
Campbell, a machine gunner, was due to leave the military last week and had been accepted at Ohio State University. But the Pentagon issued a "stop-loss" order in mid-January, barring all "separations from service" for a year, because of the potential conflict with Iraq. Campbell was disappointed at first, he said, but when he found out that his unit would be going to Kuwait, he wanted to go with them.
"I couldn't have lived with it if those guys had been over here fighting without me," he said.
Campbell and several others said they were relieved to be sent to Kuwait, especially after not being sent to Afghanistan in 2001.
"After 9/11, I packed my stuff to go to war," said Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Rosenthal, 20, who, like most of the Marines here, is based at Twentynine Palms, Calif. "When we weren't sent, we were furious. We're the desert warfare experts. They robbed us of our war."
Asked why they seemed so eager to put themselves in harm's way, Rosenthal said that Marines are constantly reminded of the history of the Corps and of those who came before them. Many said they fear they cannot live up to the legacy.
Every Marine in Charley Company can recite from memory the story of the unit's designation. In 1942, the legend goes, the company met three Japanese regiments at Guadalcanal. Afterward, their commanders flew a flag made from a Japanese parachute, inscribed with a skull and crossbones and the words "Suicide Charley." A similar flag flies outside their tent here and wherever they go.
"That's a lot to live up to," said Vanegeren, as he sat in a 60-man tent with his platoon of machine gunners. Others cite more personal reasons.
"I'm fighting for my wife," said Rosenthal, of Bakersfield, Calif. "She's a Marine, based just a few miles away from here. If something is going to happen, I want to do everything I can to make sure she's okay."
Because Marines here have little access to the outside world, rumors fly about what is in the news. Many heard about record-breaking antiwar marches on their shortwave radios or from visiting journalists. The news spread from tent to tent like wildfire.
The protests are upsetting, they said, because part of what motivates them to fight is their belief that the cause they are supporting is just. "For politicians, war is a political thing. For protesters, it's an issue to debate about. But for us, it's personal," said Cpl. Derrin Howell, 20, of Redding, Calif.
Last week, there was also talk in camp that Iraq had admitted to having nuclear weapons and was turning them over to inspectors. When told that it was untrue, most Marines seemed relieved that their mission was still on. "Believe me, we all want to go home," said Vanegeren. "But not 'till we do what we came here to do."