CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Idaho Marines who served a seven-month stint in several Iraq hotspots bonded with each other only as people surviving war and privation can.
They endured lack of privacy. Bad food. Constant danger. Heat that overwhelmed the thermometer. The men spent so much time in such tight quarters they knew each other in the dark by their step, their cough, even their smell. And when three of their Idaho compatriots were seriously wounded in a tank bombing along the Syrian border, the others wanted to be at the sides of their hospitalized friends.
Instead, they returned to duty.
"One part of me didn't want to be there, but another part of me (said) 'Yeah, they need tanks here,'" said Cpl. Dan Burton of Ontario.
The bombing, said tank gunner Sgt. Robert Anderson of Boise, was a "gut shot" to the other Idaho Marines
"It was unlike any feeling I've ever had," said Anderson, "because we're so close to these Marines."
About 80 Idaho Marine reservists who spent seven months in Iraq are now back in the States, scheduled to arrive in Boise from Camp Lejeune Friday night. As they waited to return home to Idaho, several sat down Wednesday to share their experiences with The Idaho Statesman.
Upon arriving in Iraq in March, the Marine reservists from Boise-based Charlie Company 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, split into three groups, all with different tasks and varied combat experiences. Some hooked up with Alpha Company 1st Tank Battalion in Hit in north-central Iraq; others with Bravo Company 2nd Tank Battalion near Fallujah, west of Baghdad; and the largest group joined the 2nd Military Police Battalion in Ramadi, northwest of Baghdad.
Tank battalions saw the most combat, including taking part in Operation Matador, a sweep against insurgents near the Syrian border. The Marines’ main duty was to keep watch over a bridge for explosives-packed vehicles, said Cpl. Dan Burton of Ontario.
At first the mission was simply “hot and boring,” said Burton, but then Burton and crew mates started encountering constant — if not very accurate — small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks. “We sat there for 40 hours getting shot at,” said Burton, a gunner on an M1A1 Abrams tank.
No one was hurt in those attacks. But in May, three Idaho Marines — Staff Sgt. Chad Brumpton and Lance Cpls. Mitchell Ehlke and Joe Lowe — were injured when a roadside bomb exploded under their tank as they returned from a mission. Ehlke lost a leg below the knee, Lowe was paralyzed below the waist, and Brumpton endured several surgeries and skin grafts for multiple broken bones.
No matter which battalion they served in, all the Marines experienced heat intensified inside vehicles with almost no ventilation.
Marines with the military police battalion drove mostly in Humvees, which always had windows rolled up in case of an attack. The trucks had air conditioning in name only, said Lance Cpl. Jared Reneau of Boise.
“The air conditioning keeps the radio cool and that’s about it,” he said.
Reneau spent a large part of his time in Iraq maintaining Humvees, but he had few complaints about working on metal in 120-degree heat: “It’s just a lot sweatier than normal,” he said.
In the tanks, thermometers couldn’t keep up with the heat. Cpl. Erasmo Lopez of Boise served with 2nd Tanks and said the digital thermometer he kept in the tank that would routinely black out after it hit 137 degrees.
Even at camp, the Marines didn’t get much sleep. On multiday missions, tankers would have to try to sleep in their flak jackets on top of their tanks: “When we were on the tank we wouldn’t really sleep at all,” Lopez said.
Burton said tankers drank lots of water to avoid heat-related illness. “A couple of gunners got close to dehydration and threw up in the tank,” he said.
There was nowhere to get away from the smell of vomit and four sweaty Marines at tight quarters. When asked how they dealt with the tanks’ aroma for days on end, a group of tankers burst out laughing and pointed at Anderson. He smiled and ’fessed up.
“I’m by far the most odiferous Marine,” he admitted.
Even in their camps, privacy was at a premium. Some Marines used ponchos to make small forts around their bunks, said Cpl. T.J. Cambron of Gooding, who served with the 1st Tanks.
The only place to get away from people was the toilets. Even there, fellow Marines would sometimes strike up conversation.
“You get to the point where you hear somebody walking at night, you know exactly who it is. You hear somebody coughing and know exactly who it is,” said Sgt. Ryan Tucker, Meridian, who served with the 2nd Military Police battalion.
Commiserating about the food was another way the Marines bonded. Reviews of the food topped out at middling, with “terrible” being the Marines’ most common rating.
An occasional delicacy like lobster would find its way into a chow hall in Hit, Reneau said. But even those delicacies were viewed with suspicion. “I’m kind of wary of lobster in the desert,” Reneau said. The Marines in Hit once got chicken wings and mashed potatoes for two weeks straight — the food so bad that many Marines simply stopped eating it. “Most of us got down to the point where we’d have a little cereal for breakfast then a little dinner and that was it,” Cambron said.
To offer stories ideas or comments, contact reporter Heath Druzin at email@example.com or 373-6617.