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Learning a combat lesson on feet, one painful step at a time

NAME: Pfc. Jacob Emmons

AGE: 19

HOMETOWN: Tremont, Ill.

BRANCH: Marines

JOB: Combat engineer

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CAMP CHESTY, Iraq—Pfc. Jacob Emmons digs into a pile of dirt, building a bunker. Wearing sandy-brown boots, his feet hurt and they feel as if they're bleeding, but it helps to keep working, to keep his mind off the pain.

He digs into the dirt again and smells something familiar, something far away.

"You know what that smells like?" he asks, putting his face close to the soil. "It smells like baseball."

For several weeks, Emmons was based at a Marine camp in the middle of the Iraqi desert. There was nothing but sand in every direction. No sign of life, nothing but a big sweeping sky and an occasional sandstorm. Now he has moved forward, to a camp about 80 miles from Baghdad. The dirt is rich, the weather seems 20 degrees cooler and the horizon is full of life—palm trees and long grass.

"Baseball," he says, and smiles.

Emmons, 19, a Marine Reserve from Tremont, Ill., is a combat engineer for Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion. He had a baseball scholarship to Spoon River College in Canton, Ill., but he had to turn it down when he was activated.

"I called up the baseball coach and I told him that I thought we were gonna get activated," Emmons says. "He said, `That's cool. We'll re-up your scholarship for next year.' "

Emmons grew up a Marine brat. He was born in Guantanamo Bay, where his father, Rod Emmons, was stationed.

"I have pictures of me as a kid, sitting on howitzers and on big arty (artillery)," he says. "It was pretty cool. My dad got discharged from the Marines because he hurt his back. I've always heard stories about the Marines, and I wanted to join. My dad said that he didn't want me to join the Marine Corps unless I got an education out of it too."

So Emmons joined the reserves.

He went through boot camp last summer, and he's been in the Middle East for two months.

When the United States invaded Iraq, the Marines wore bio-chem suits and rubber boots in case Iraq launched a biological or chemical attack. Emmons wore the rubber boots, over his leather boots, for more than 30 hours straight without changing his socks. His feet were drenched with sweat.

"My feet couldn't breathe," he says. "After that, my feet started hurting a little bit."

A few days later, he noticed a little red patch on his left foot.

"I wasn't going to complain to the corpsman about that," Emmons says. "He would say, `Just suck it up.' From there, we started working, laying wire, setting up trip flares. We had to work dusk to dawn, every day."

He let his feet air out at night, but he didn't change his socks and he didn't use any foot powder; all rookie mistakes.

"You don't want to waste all your socks, because you don't know when you are going to wash them next," he says.

The little red patch started to grow, creeping across the middle of his foot. It worked its way to the side and up and around his heel.

Then his heel turned white. It got so bad he could barely walk.

But he was so busy, in so many dangerous situations, he didn't bother to think about his feet. On one convoy, he was involved in his first combat.

"We had tracers coming at us, about 40 yards off the road," Emmons says. "We just unloaded. It was dark out and we could just see flashes, and that's what we shot at. There were tracers behind us. Tracers in front of us. Tracers coming at us in every direction. Nobody was scared. That's what I was so impressed with. Nobody was ducking their head or anything. We were all keeping low, right? But that's when I felt good about my squad."

His feet kept getting worse. When he put them into the air, they started throbbing. When he put them down, it felt as if they were on fire; when he walked, it felt as if they were bleeding.

A few days ago, a doctor stopped by Camp Chesty and asked if anybody had any medical problems.

Several Marines took off their boots.

"That's just heat rash," the doctor said to one Marine.

"Oh, those are just calluses," he told another.

Then he looked at Emmons' feet. They were blood red.

"Your feet gotta be killing you," the doc said.

"Yeah, a little bit," he said.

"You know what this is?"

"No."

"Right there, that's swamp foot," the doctor said, pointing at Emmons' heel. Then he motioned to the rest of it. "That's the start of cellulitis," he said. "I can see it going up your foot."

Emmons got a 10-day course of antibiotics and a big lecture.

"They told me that I'm a private first class and I don't know the tricks of the trade," Emmons says.

He was ordered to wash his feet twice a day, change his socks every chance he gets and use foot powder.

He's been on light duty for the last three days. He sits in a bunker, with his socks off, wearing sandals.

Emmons has been on antibiotics for a few days, and he's improved. His feet are getting better. Now they are pink, purple, red and yellow. But the color seems to be fading and the pain is almost all gone. "I can walk. Every now and then, when they get sweaty, it starts to hurt again," he says.

He senses that the war is starting to come to a close, and it makes him think about going home even more.

"On post, there is nothing out there, and you just gaze off and say, `I wish I was back home playing baseball.' "

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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+EMMONS

Iraq

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