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Marines anxious about the future, but ready for battle

ABOARD THE USS TARAWA, Persian Gulf—The Marines of Golf Company wanted desperately to get their boots dirty.

Never mind that they were headed for the desert, possibly for months of living in holes that they will dig. Never mind that they were leaving behind hot showers and regular meals. Never mind that what awaits them probably is war.

"We want off this boat," said Sgt. Guillermo Sosa, a 28-year-old husband and father from Alviso, Calif., who disembarked in Kuwait on Friday. "We have work to do."

Although the troops of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, conceded anxiety about their future—particularly about getting gassed or hit by biological terrors—they talked with gusto of heading to battle against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"If we don't take Saddam out now there's going to be Marines here forever," Sosa said.

The Tarawa steamed into the Persian Gulf with about 1,300 Marines; roughly 800 more rode aboard two companion ships. On Friday most went ashore in Kuwait, leaving behind a minority of Marine pilots and mechanics on Navy ships to assure air support if war comes again to the gulf.

For more than a month, the Marines had bided their time, nearly all of it passed below the deck of this amphibious assault ship amid the rattle and hum of the ship's engines and the noise of helicopters and Harrier jets overhead.

On board, they were guests. Small squads of Marines regularly gathered in one corner of the ship or another to review tactics, only to find themselves booted when the ship's sailors needed the space for another purpose.

The "berthing space" that Sosa shared with 230 other men has bunks stacked four high, 18 inches apart, end-to-end with more stacks of "racks," as the Navy calls bunks, an arm's length across from yet more bunks. The shared toilets and showers required hourly cleaning.

With little room to prepare for battle, the Marines met daily in small groups to school themselves on tactics, virtually all in classroom-style preparation.

Sosa and five others confessed, sheepishly, to sharing an X-box game machine that tended to run about eight hours a day.

"Look at them right now," said Cpl. Nathan Floyd, 20, of North Vernon, Ind., as two of his shipmates staged a computer-animated game between the Miami Dolphins and the Seattle Seahawks. "They can't take their eyes off that screen."

A confident and ambitious young squad leader, Floyd was taking the equivalent of a 14-hour college class load in psychology, working at sea toward a degree that will boost his advancement in the Marines. Eventually, he hopes to work for the National Security Agency, the CIA or the FBI.

First, he will endure the heat of Kuwait and, he assumed, the desolation of Iraq.

"It'll be good to get off (the Tarawa), because you're caught in such confined quarters," said Floyd, who stood in line this week to shave his head so he wouldn't have to worry about his hair in the desert. "It's bad to get off, because you don't know what's going to happen."

On land, the Marines said, they will be at home with their 80-plus-pound packs and M-16 rifles, scrambling through the sand to practice the maneuvers they will use if President Bush orders them to take part in a campaign to unseat Saddam.

The command of the 15th MEU, including Col. Thomas Waldhauser, is much the same group that moved into the Afghan desert in the fall of 2001 and on to the airport in the Afghan city of Kandahar that December. But few of the rifle- and mortar-toting ground fighters have seen combat.

"We'll do whatever we're asked," said Waldhauser. "We can't say, `We don't do windows.' "

The Marines also will go into action whenever they're asked.

"If we have to wait here for a while, sure, it isn't the most pleasant thing to play in the dirt," the colonel said. "But we don't have a choice. We'll use the time to sharpen the skills that atrophy when we're at sea."

His subordinates fidgeted with anticipation.

"We just want to be where the action is," said Cpl. Eric Widerman, 20, of Orlando, Fla. "It would be stupid to say you're not scared . . . but you don't want to come all this way for nothing."

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Scott Canon reports for the Kansas City Star.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+marines

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