"The first sergeant's job in the Army or Marines is to make sure his company's ready to be led when the commander leads it. First Sgt. Lanham - who seemed to be everywhere in the austere desert fort - would go along on the patrol to monitor the squad's proficiency. Since the unit's last Iraq tour, personnel turnover had been almost 75 percent, with most of the Marines 20 years old or younger.
They looked young. But they already carried themselves like veterans.
Before the patrol began, there was a preliminary inspection, a final squad-leader's inspection, then a last check by the duty officer. Did everyone have plenty of ammo?
KARMAH is one of the areas of Anbar Province in the process of flipping to our side, although it's still Indian country a few kilometers to the north.
Last year, any foot patrol in Karmah would've attracted hostile fire. Now the Marines just had to worry about occasional snipers and remote-controlled bombs - the infamous IEDs.
Orange and mean, the sun popped up as we left the dusty outpost. With its sandbagged rooftop bunkers, blast barriers and wire, it didn't have the sanitized look you encounter in films. Outpost Delta's a hard place for hard men.
The patrol hunted methodically through a junked landscape where IEDs could have been hidden anywhere. Industrial ruins overlooked fields littered with rusted vehicle cabs and endless shoals of garbage. Unfinished, wretchedly built houses seemed to have been built at random in the wasteland. A few lonely date palms and low-lying reeds marked a seasonal stream.
There was no sign of water now. The heat had begun its attack. Carrying just half the burden of the Marines, I was greased with sweat.
EXPERIENCE tells. First Sgt. Lanham didn't interfere - he let the squad leader do his job. But the top sergeant had the best situational awareness, scanning 360 degrees, pausing to check out potential sniper hides through his rifle's sights and constantly evaluating fields of fire.
But the young Marines moved well, too. Remarkably well.
Rigorously disciplined, they fanned out when crossing open areas and crisply provided overwatch where the terrain grew restricted. You would've thought they were multi-tour veterans, but they'd been in Iraq less than a month.
We maneuvered through a junkyard - an IED bomber's dream. The only thing that made it any different from the surrounding acres was that this was a formal junkyard. Stray dogs yapped in the background and the first curious faces appeared in doorways. As they do everywhere, children waved.
Iraq's what an old buddy of mine would've called a "squat and leave it" country. You can only assume that no single piece of garbage has been picked up since the fall of Babylon. One Marine initiative seeks to clean things up, to instill community pride. On that count, a certain amount of skepticism might be healthy. But we can wish the Devil Dogs luck.
The Arab portions of Iraq recall the public's attitude in the old Soviet Union: Nothing really belonged to anyone, so no one felt responsible for anything. If there ever was any greatness here, it was an accident, the historical equivalent of the infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters eventually producing the works of Shakespeare.
WE filter through trash- strewn alleys into the targeted marketplace. It's just after seven, and commerce is starting to come to life - the heat affects the Iraqis, too. By the roadside, a truck drops off slabs of ice to be sold. In the open space in front of their shop, a butcher and his sons slaughter sheep (about which the remaining sheep are visibly unhappy). Board of Health standards do not apply.
Bright vegetables adorn a stall on a side street. A tire shop offers ancient re-treads. Old men sit on stoops and narrow porches, omnipresent and watchful. A businessman wears a sparkling white robe as he sits with garbage piled at his feet.
What have they seen that might help the Marines? Asking that question is part of the mission. After the security team fans out to secure "the box," other Marines control traffic while an Arabic-speaking Marine makes the rounds of the shops. Every Marine has been taught enough Arabic to pose a few basic questions, but the nuances matter here.
And the population has to be careful. They've learned beyond all doubt that we're a better deal than al Qaeda. But the terrorists, while down, are not quite out. Too much public fondness for Americans could still be a death sentence. And the past four years have taught Iraqis new levels of caution - in a culture that was paranoid from the start.
Nothing much turns up. ID cards are in order. The locals shrug off the hassle. The kids are entertained. A few adults try to make nice in the Iraqi way that's always angling for an advantage.
SOAKED under our body armor, we move out. Headed back to Outpost Delta by an alternate route. The Marines never drop their tactical finesse, pulling off their perimeter security in perfect order.
We pause in another junkyard, going into a hasty defense to let the rear security elements close with us. It's a quiet morning and no shots have been fired - which is a good thing. Just months before, these alleys and barren fields belonged to al Qaeda and its former allies.
The heat triples the gravitational pull of the body armor. And our route leads us over a 7-foot wall with concertina wire offset behind it. First Sgt. Lanham takes the obstacle like an athlete. Following at a tactical interval, I do my best not to shame my fellow Army retirees.
The barking of the stray dogs sounds suspiciously like laughter.
As we re-enter the outpost, the first sergeant mutters, "Sir, I guarantee you that, if we hadn't been along, they wouldn't have gone over that wall. They were just testing us old guys."
As the Marines cleared their weapons, having fought nothing worse than the heat, it struck me that any day in Iraq when the high point of a Marine patrol is putting a journalist through an obstacle course is a very good day, indeed.
FOLLOWING an after-action review and 1st Sgt. Lanham's critique, it was finally time for breakfast. The powdered eggs tasted better than anything a Manhattan expense-account restaurant ever served."
Ralph Peters is reporting from Iraq for The Post.
Just kids. Even during the days when there was a draft Marines relied upon volunteers. The turn-over ratio was always high and kids formed the point of the spear. The average age of these guys is a tad younger than the student body at Virginia Tech. Who could have drawn down on korean killer Cho in a heartbeat were they permitted to defend themselves as their younger counterparts in the service can. Not all of the enemies of America live and ply their brand of horror in the middle east; I know that and so do you, but there simply aren't enough of us allowed to fight back, and that may very well be our society's biggest shame.