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Watching, waiting, sleeping in sand

NAME: Bob Martin

RANK: Marine corporal

DUTY: Combat engineer

AGE: 22

HOMETOWN: Peoria, Ill.


VIPER CAMP, Southern Iraq—Cpl. Bob Martin stands in a U-shaped machine-gun nest, dug in the sand, staring at a crest in the desert.

He's heard there is a battalion of Iraqi soldiers lurking nearby in armored vehicles, somewhere to the south.

"If they are coming, they are coming right over that crest," he says to two Marines on watch with him.

He squints into a pair of binoculars. Nothing there.

A strong wind kicks up a blinding sandstorm. He puts on a pair of goggles caked with dust and dirt. He leans into a Mark19, a machine gun that launches grenades.

He gets out an AT4, an antitank rocket, and lays it on the sand. He jokes that it's "Marine proof"—with pictures on the side on how to hold it, how to aim and how to fire.

But there is one rule when trying to bring down a tank: the closer you are, the better.

So he sits and waits.

Martin, 22, of Peoria, Ill., is a combat engineer in Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion. He is guarding a critical supply camp, which will provide fuel to about 50,000 Marines. The war rages around him.

"Every day here is worse than the day before," he says. "I'm sick of waiting for something to happen. We are just waiting for somebody to come over that crest. We want to be part of the war."

He scoops up a chunk of sand and crushes it in his fingertips.

"I just got a letter from my mom," Martin says to a Marine. "They caught bin Laden's right-hand man, the guy who planned the World Trade Center attacks."

The news is weeks old, but it seems new. In the age of the Internet, these young Marines have never been so out of touch.

And Martin has never been so tired. That's the one thing he misses, a full night of sleep. Last night, he got about four hours after a sergeant woke up him and told him to help strip a seven-ton truck in the dark, removing the roof and benches, turning it into a flatbed truck.

He has no idea why.

"It would be a lot easier if they told us what our mission was," he says.

For weeks, Martin has worked security—eight hours on, eight hours off, eight hours on again.

Martin sleeps on the ground, in a sleeping bag, inside a waterproof shell. The Marines in Charlie Company move so much they don't bother to put up tents. And the truth is, he doesn't mind it.

Every morning after breakfast, he takes the blue pill, as the Marines call it, a medicine to prevent malaria.

Standing 5 feet 10 and weighing 180 pounds, he figures he has lost about 15 pounds eating prepackaged MREs, or meals ready to eat.

Back home in Peoria, Martin, who is in the Marine reserves, is a surveillance officer at a department store. When he gets out of Iraq, he plans to finish his studies at Illinois State University. He's studying business administration and wants to own his own business.

Martin is convinced he will be home in July because reserves get more benefits if they are gone for more than 180 days. Charlie Company was activated Jan. 14. Earlier that January day, he married Brooke Martin.

"We went down to the courthouse and got married. We are still going to have the big wedding when I get back," he said.

They were supposed to be married June 14, but they decided to make it official before he went, in case something happens to him, so she could receive benefits.

In his combat vest, he keeps a pair of her pink panties in a plastic bag. She sprayed them with his favorite perfume. When everybody else in his squad saw the bag and smelled the perfume, they wrote home, asking their wives and girlfriends to send the same thing.

Two Chinook helicopters fly by, carrying troops and equipment, right over the crest he's been watching.

"If there was a battalion out there, sure as heck, these Chinooks wouldn't be out there," he says.

His shoulders relax. He leans against his gun and takes another breath of sand.


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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): iraqfac+martin