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Monday, March 24

1st Marine Division plows its way into position

By C. Mark Brinkley | Marine Corps Times

NEAR AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq The entire 1st Marine Division, moving as one massive convoy to push the war closer to Baghdad, snaked into central Iraq on a 24-hour push that ended here early Monday morning.

The move put the Marines in position to help with fighting near the city. But getting here wasn't easy.

Coordinating hundreds of tanks, trucks, light armored vehicles and thousands of troops proved a logistical nightmare as the division rumbled across Iraqi highways and deserts well into the night Sunday. Frequent pauses to allow some units to catch up with others offered the only downtime for exhausted drivers in need of sleep.

"I didn't think we'd be here," said one Marine officer. "If you think about it, we moved the entire Marine division 100 miles in 24 hours. That's impressive."

Steady streams of vehicles lined up for miles could be seen moving in from all directions, using existing highways when possible and mowing new ones off-road when necessary. At each pause in the march, locals living modest lives near the staging areas came out to see the U.S. troops, who offered leftover snacks from the previous day's field fare and packages of humanitarian assistance rations.

At one stop, more than a dozen children moved in cautiously, carrying empty sacks they later filled with the remnants of the Marines' breakfasts. It was like a strange desert Halloween, with children smiling and waving at troops manning heavy machine guns, hoping to catch a Marine's eye and earn a bag of Skittles or Charms lollipops.

One boy, about 9 or 10, shoeless and dragging a huge sack behind him in the dust, sorted through the Marines' trash, depositing matches, crackers and the like in his bag while moving from pile to pile. Discovering a half-eaten toaster pastry among the garbage, the boy smiled at his find and promptly finished it off, before moving on to the next heap.

The convoy was chaotic at times with vehicles kicking up so thick a haze that visibility was reduced to zero. Drivers lost sight of vehicles 10 feet ahead of them. After the sun went down, temperatures plunged and drivers and gunners turned to night-vision goggles to watch for turns in the road and enemy forces lurking in the haze.

The goggles were not enough. Some drivers still lost the way, others slid into ditches on the sides of the roads and had to be towed out. At every stop, the lead vehicle for each unit radioed the rear vehicle to make sure the convoy was moving as a whole.

"Five-alpha, are you Willie Nelson?" a voice crackled over the radio in the dark.

"Roger," came the reply. "Five-alpha is Willie Nelson."

The exchange was a play on country singer Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."

Refueling and resupply stops were chaotic events, akin to an interstate service station on a Fourth of July weekend. Vehicles lined up for miles waiting for fuel, their inhabitants scattering in a rush to answer nature's call.

"Operational guys need to listen to logisticians," another Marine officer said. "Operational guys are like, 'I want to do this, this and this' and logisticians say, 'I can't support that.' Operational guys say, 'You'll make it happen.' "

The officer shook his head and looked around at the desert spreading for miles on all sides, military vehicles lined up everywhere, waiting to move.

"Out here, you can't just make it happen," he said. "You get halfway there, and it ends up like this."