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Thursday, March 27

Marine supply convoy struggles to reach troops

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

CENTRAL IRAQ - Welcome to Sgt. Joseph Gomez's Iraqi Tours.

"To your left is desert,'' Gomez said from the back of his seven-ton Marine truck. ''To your right is desert and muck with no life around. Please do not feed the stray dogs.''

It gets this ludicrous when you are a Marine five days out of camp on what your commanders said would be a two-day trip to deliver supplies to front-line troops.

The more than 100 Marines in Gomez's convoy found out firsthand this week why this war between the United States and Iraq is not a repeat of a U.S.-led coalition's battle to expel Iraq from Kuwait 12 years ago. This convoy's odyssey lasted longer than the entire ground war in 1991.

The journey started in Saturday in Kuwait, when convoy leaders told Marines they would be gone for a night or two. Just bring one set of clothes and your toiletry bag, they said.

By Monday afternoon, Gomez, wearing only his skivvies under his chemical protective suit, was weary and wary.

"The word changed,'' he said.'' The word changes a lot.''

The new plan Monday was an urgent push north.

Staff Sgt. Frank Glenn, the convoy commander, outlined the threat. He explained how an Army convoy had been ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah. He told his 100 truck drivers to watch out for civilian cars trying to break up the convoy or throw grenades. He warned they might run into Iraqi artillery. And he said to stay on the beaten path or risk being blown up by land mines.

Finally, he told them to step on it.

Front-line Marines ''can't move forward without you,'' Glenn said. ''Forget telling great war stories at the VFW. What we are doing is serious.''

No rest

By Monday, Glenn's crew was already wiped out after 40 hours of driving. Some Marines hoped they could take a break after the grueling trip.

Glenn asked his commanding officer if his men could rest until morning.

"The major looked at me like I had six eyes,'' Glenn said. ''He said, 'We gotta get up there.'''

Corp. Ryan Ferenci, 21, of Fresno, Calif., stood at the back of a circle of Marines getting Glenn's briefing on the need to keep going. He swallowed hard. His job was to drive a big load of ammunition.

"Pretty much, I'm strapped to a bomb,'' Ferenci said.

The trucks rolled out and tried to stay about 10 yards or so apart. Every few trucks there was one outfitted with a 50-caliber machine gun or a mobile grenade launcher that can fire 200 grenades per minute.

The convoy drove for two hours through the sand to a highway to wait to meet another convoy. They waited until after dark.

During the idle time, Lance Cpl. Robert Kissmann, the driver of a truck that he called the world's largest El Camino, took the time to clean his rifle.

Some day, Kissmann of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., wants to be an English professor. Some day, he wants to get back to his newlywed wife.

"I've been married 10 weeks. I haven't seen my wife in nine,'' Kissmann said.

They were married by a judge on a Monday afternoon right after Kissmann was called up for duty.'' We had a pretty good crowd. About 60 people turned out. Not bad for a Monday afternoon,'' he said.

The small talk was broken up when someone yelled ''Gas! Gas! Gas!'' - an alert that there was a threat of chemical weapons nearby. After a while, the gas masks came off.

Back to the start

The trucks rolled for two more hours that night. But on Tuesday morning, the Marines realized that because of traffic-flow problems, they wound up at the same spot they had started.

"Sometimes, you just go in circles,'' Gomez said.

Later that morning, they reached a six-lane highway. They cruised 70 miles past men walking along the road, some of them barefoot.

The highway's pavement was perfectly smooth. There were abandoned rest stops with broken metal umbrellas. The wind started whipping late in the morning, turning the sky a darker and darker shade of brownish yellow.

The trucks stopped for what drivers thought was a moment, and Gomez, who rides in the back of Kissmann's truck, explained how he almost came not to be here.

He left the Marines last fall to get a job as an electrician in his hometown of Chicago. But the company went bankrupt. Gomez hoped to be a fireman, but the fire department wasn't hiring.

So he rejoined.

As the winds stung his face, he said, ''It feels good to serve.''

Still waiting

After a couple hours of waiting Tuesday afternoon, the trucks still hadn't moved.

The Marines were then called into formation by a loud, hotshot corporal named D.J. Parr from Dallas. Parr, who is in charge of security for the convoy, was angered over having to wake up dozing drivers.

"The next person I catch sleeping is going to hate life,'' he said. ''I am not going to sit here and die because some of you are sleeping.''

Parr ordered the Marines back to their trucks. But the trucks still didn't move.

As they waited, Lance Cpl. Frank Foy, 21, of New Jersey explained how he was a high school quarterback who, three years after graduation, is still dating the woman who was captain of his cheerleading squad.

He pulled out a picture of them. He is smiling widely as she hugs him.

"I can still smell her,'' he said as he sniffed the picture.

Foy's father is a contractor in New Jersey.

"That's why I'm here,'' he said. ''Everybody said I was just going to have everything handed to me.''

When the convoy started moving again, all these Marines earned their pay the rest of the day.

But only a few hours later, the trucks were again bogged down in a wicked sandstorm, brief periods of enemy fire and broken-down vehicles.

During the grueling trip, a truck carrying guided missiles broke down. The Marines, knowing they were easy targets for snipers, yet unable to leave the weapons cache at the side of the road, waited several hours for a tow vehicle to take the missiles.

Tuesday night's spookiness continued as word went up and down the convoy of enemy sniper fire.

Convoy split

The Marines awoke in their truck beds Wednesday morning to the sound of shots fired.

The convoy was split up as gas trucks moved ahead. The rest of the convoy didn't start moving until 11:30 a.m.

The day became an endless series of delays as the trucks tried to go over and around unfinished highway culverts and bridges. The trucks also fought with other convoys for spots in huge line of vehicles carrying supplies.

By mid-afternoon, everyone in the convoy was shaking his head.

Ferenci, the Marine driving a truck filled with ammunition, could hardly believe his luck. Ordinarily, he's a disbursement clerk who hands out money to his fellow Marines on pay days.

My captain told me she knows I'm motivated, so she volunteered me for this convoy,'' Ferenci said. ''She said: 'Don't worry, you'll get back tomorrow.' "

The Marines stopped feeling sorry for themselves when four Iraqi children walked up and stood long enough that the leathernecks put down their guns and threw food and water at them.

Three of the children were barefoot in the cold desert evening. Two girls who looked like grade-schoolers appeared dazed. So did the oldest boy, who appeared to be in his early teens.

But the second-oldest boy, the only one wearing shoes - a pair of sky blue slippers - might be the kind of capitalist President Bush wants to encourage in Iraq. He went up and down the line of trucks, knowing that his thumbs-up sign was currency. Within a few minutes, he collected more water and boxed meals than he could carry.

As the convoy moved a few more miles until nightfall, the mood boiled down to six letters on a cardboard license plate affixed to back of one of the trucks:

IRQ SUX.

Nearing the front

On Thursday morning, the convoy drivers awoke with a Marine infantry division regiment on the horizon in front of them. It was the first of several signs that they had come close to the front. There also was good weather for a change. No wind, clear skies and a warming sun.

The steady stream of assault helicopters and medivacs flew over the convoy throughout the day, from the north and south.

By midday, the trucks had moved another 30 miles when they stopped to fix the convoy's second flat tire of the day.

Gomez wiped the caked dirt from his eyes.'' I feel like one of those mud houses we keep passing,'' he said.

As the idle moments passed by, talk drifted to Chicago-style pizza, a couple of days of liberty in a German beer garden and the girls back home.

"The place I want to get to is Camp Couch,'' Kissmann said.

The road became one of long shadows in the afternoon as the convoy passed platoon after platoon of infantry grunts and tanks. The trucks finally stopped one camp short of their ultimate destination.

"It's too hot to go all the way up there,'' Lt. Christopher Waters said.

The convoy was now parked in an area that took mortar fire the night before. Occasionally, the Marines saw explosions on the horizon as it grew dark.

No one expected the ride to take this long.

"Whew!'' Waters said.'' I'll feel real good when we make it back.''