A Summer of Discontent in Iraq
At Post 3, when the hours on watch seem to stretch on and the heat gets overwhelming, Lance Cpl. David Hill picks up a walkie-talkie and starts speaking in his best over-the-top local radio announcer voice.
“Good afternoon, all gov center and IP posts. This is WKIL coming to you from the rooftops of Ramadi,” Hill intones to his small audience of fellow Marines.
“Hope you are all enjoying yourselves out there. It is about 120 degrees, and the heat has climbed from suicidal to insane.”
As the summer wears on in Iraq, the attacks on Ramadi’s government center are subsiding. But rising in their place are the heat, the boredom and the complaints -- about the sandbags Marines must carry, about the Ramadi mission, about the war.
Marines often brag that their mission is to kill people and break their toys. But for the Marines of Kilo Company, stuck on the roof of Ramadi’s government center and Iraqi police headquarters, simply killing insurgents doesn’t feel like progress.
And so the frustration rises with the mercury for these troops, most on their second deployment to Iraq and their second summer in Al Anbar province’s scorching desert.
Elsewhere in Ramadi, U.S. troops talk with residents in an attempt to win their trust and improve their sense of security. But around the government center, there has been no talking and lots of shooting for many months.
Insurgents have regularly attacked the government center, trying to prevent the provincial government from functioning. Kilo Company has fortified the posts on the roof, manned around-the-clock by Marines charged with returning gunfire and killing assailants who fire rockets and plant roadside bombs.
Kilo’s commander, Andrew Del Gaudio, a 30-year-old from the Bronx, says the Marines are making a difference.
“We are killing people,” he says, referring to insurgents.
Attacks on the government center have decreased because slain insurgents have not been replaced, he says.
“There are not nearly as many fighters now,” Del Gaudio says. “Is that a form of progress? I don’t know. Does it allow the governor to meet with his people? Does it allow the Iraqi army time to grow stronger? Yes. Therefore, it is worthwhile.”
It would be nice, he says, for Kilo to be able to win the trust of Iraqis, but that is impossible in the neighborhoods around the government center, where the fighting remains fierce and most residents have fled.
“It is still a red zone, and it has to be dealt with accordingly,” Del Gaudio says. “You can’t give a soccer ball to a guy with an AK-47 who wants to kill you.”
The Marines on the roof say they hope Del Gaudio is right about the progress. But their frustration is clear. Few say they intend to reenlist.
“I hope I am out before the next war comes,” says Lance Cpl. Brodey Vann, a 20-year-old from Pinellas Park, Fla.
“No matter what we do, there are insurgents everywhere,” Vann says. “I don’t think we are making any progress.”
For hours each day, the troops stare at the abandoned buildings that surround the government center. All of the structures have been pockmarked with bullet holes. A few are starting to collapse. The Marines have given many of the crumbling buildings names -- “Ghost Hotel” or “Swiss Cheese.”
Some Marines count the hours they have stared into the bleak landscape -- more than 720. Some try to estimate the hours remaining before they return home.
For others, every day is Groundhog Day. Like the Bill Murray movie, the days here endlessly repeat themselves.
“You know it’s not the same day,” says Pfc. Brian Terry, a 21-year-old from High Point, N.C., assigned to Kilo’s 2nd Platoon. “But it feels like the same day.”
Last year the Marines here, part of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, were stationed in Fallouja and charged with helping rebuild the area after the November 2004 assault.
Terry’s partner on post, Lance Cpl. Jerod Zimmerman, a 21-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., misses the reconstruction work and the friendly interaction with residents. Here in Ramadi, he sits on the roof waiting to shoot people who shoot at him.
“Out there, it was easier to see you were helping people,” he says. “And you miss that. Well, I miss that. I won’t speak for the entire Marine Corps. It is a lot easier to understand why you are there if you are able to see immediate results. Out here, it’s different. It’s harder to see the influence you have.”
The feelings are similar in the 4th Platoon, standing watch on the other shift. At Post 4, the heat is stifling. There is no breeze. The only relief comes from a fan. Lance Cpl. Jay Reed, 21, of Syracuse, N.Y., stares out at the buildings, his eyes never leaving the landscape.
“Last year was a different mission, geared toward building their city and helping the people,” Reed says. “So you could see more progress, I guess. This year, this building is our mission, making sure nothing happens to this building.... I am sure someone in this city has seen improvement, but not from this building.”
Reed wears some of his bitterness scrawled on his Kevlar helmet: “Suicide = Solution.”
“The Kevlar says it all,” he declares.
For Marines, the work at the government center rarely ends. There are multiple long shifts at the guard posts. And when they are off the roof, there are night foot patrols, construction work, cleanup duty and assignments tearing down old outposts and building new ones.
Worst of all is sandbag duty. The troops groan whenever they spot the sandbag truck arrive and dump another load that has to be carried to the roof.
They struggle to find some mental escape. For Reed and his partner, Lance Cpl. Ryan Gianoulis, 23, of Beechwood, N.J., the shift on the roof begins with complaints. When that is over, they talk about how long it is until they go home. Then they talk about women and getting married.
“Then about the last two hours I sing songs,” Reed says. “Little duets.”
Reed and Gianoulis have renditions of “Jingle Bells,” the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” But their favorite must be “Jackson.” Gianoulis sings the Johnny Cash part. Reed channels June Carter Cash.
“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,” Reed croons. “We’ve been talking about Jackson, ever since the fire went out.”
Late in the shift, the music at Post 3 is often interrupted by Hill’s WKIL “broadcast.”
Most days, after Hill, a 23-year-old from Tampa, finishes his commentary on the threat level at downtown Ramadi’s various OPs, or outposts, he throws in a few “sponsorships,” each colored by frustration with the insurgents who attack the Marines or the unending work schedule.
One recent evening, he closed his broadcast this way:
“This message brought to you by ‘Death’ -- coming to an OP near you soon.”