QALAT SUKAR , Iraq -- Its 0200 Zulu - just after dawn - and the Marines from Golf Co., Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Bn., 2nd Marines, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) crawl out from their sleeping bags and move their stiff and tired bodies into the heavy body armor they have been wearing for weeks. They grab their weapons and stand silently in the hallways and rooftops of the abandoned schoolhouse that now serves as their command post. Dusk and dawn are the most likely times to expect an attack by the lingering loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime, so the Marines must "stand to" and be ready for anything. The distant chorus of barking dogs, cackling roosters, and screeching donkeys is the only sound they hear on the early morning streets of Qalat Sukkar. Finally, the command is sounded, "Stand down", and the Marines file down to a courtyard for a formation. The rumors have been flowing that they may be going home, and after almost nine months away, the Marines are eager for a solid word or date. Next to a heaping pile of broken desks and chairs, Golf Co. gathers around 1stSgt. Tim Brown. He wastes no time in telling them the news - they start their retrograde back to the ship tomorrow. "You have all done an outstanding job out here," said Brown. "Marines don't choose their missions - they accomplish the ones they are given - and you have done just that." Earlier in the war, Golf Co. had established a blocking position east of the MEU's command to defend against an entire Iraqi armored division. While at that position, they took approximately 60 detainees, and confiscated over 100 weapons, ranging from AK-47 automatic rifles, pistols and medium machine guns. They also confiscated one vehicle and turned it over to a local villager. Later, in the town of Al Hayy, Golf Co. teamed up with Force Reconnaissance platoon for a raid on a suspected Ba'ath Party site. During the raid, Golf Co. had one confirmed kill on an armed Iraqi and found a significant weapons cache. From Al Hayy, Golf Co. moved their position twice - first to the integral intersection of routs 7 and 17, and finally ending up in the austere city of Qalat Sukkar, where the Ba'ath Party once terrified the locals with ruthless violence. For the past week, the Marines have been conducting patrols throughout the city and establishing repoire with the citizens. "Our mission here in Qalat Sukkar is two-fold," said Captain Ron Jones, Golf Company Commander. "We are patrolling here and asking questions both for security purposes and also to find out what they need to get this town up and running again." The city needs a lot. Striking poverty shows that the locals need food, water, and electricity. Trash and dead animals litter the ground and gray sewage runoff covers the streets indicating a dire need for proper irrigation. With the help of attachments such as Sgt. Nathan Vigil, an Arabic linguist and SSgt. Eric Yurgartis, a Human Exploitation Team Marine, Golf Co. has made several contacts in the city, helping to pinpoint possible weapons caches and finding out what the people need. Yesterday, a cordon and search of a former Ba'ath Party official's house turned up nothing. But today, a promising tip may help them locate weapons and Ba'ath Party officials.And so, on the day that they are supposed to pull out, Golf Co. sends out one more patrol - one more chance to secure the city for its people. It was also one more risk of being shot by snipers or becoming a victim of a suicide bomber. After running three patrols a day, the Marines have become a popular attraction in Qalatsuker. Wherever they go, there is always a large crowd following them. The attention has ambiguous effects on the Marines, who often end up conducting crowd control when there is a pause in their movement."The kids are all over you," said Cpl. Steven Bredenkoetter, Golf Co. radio operator. "Smiles and handshakes are reassuring, but large crowds are also nerve racking. You never know who is out to get you."Today is no different. People begin following the patrol shortly after it leaves the schoolhouse at seven in the morning. Children walk beside the Marines, examining their gear and weapons. Men wave from storefronts or follow close behind, curious as to what the Marines seeking. Women peek out of doorways, careful not to reveal more than their eyes.After a few blocks, a large crowd has gathered around the Marines who have stopped to search a house with government symbols on the wall. Intelligence reports indicate a high-ranking Ba'ath Party official once lived there. The Marines go in looking for any remnants of propaganda or weapons and are prepared to engage anyone still trying to defend the house.The search turns up little more than some unlabeled CDs and one single picture of Saddam. The official was long gone, leaving little evidence. Most of the houses the Marines search are void of the evil men who once terrorized the city. In their place, Marines find families who seized the opportunity to leave their mud huts.Shortly after, Platoon commander Capt. Robert Dinero calls the crowd closer and speaks to them through the interpreter. His speech is straightforward."If you have any information on weapons, or the whereabouts of Ba'ath Party officials please tell us," said Dinero. "Once we get those bad people out, it will be safe to bring you what you need.""Until then," continued Dinero, "we will not let them hurt you anymore."As Dinero finishes, Platoon Sergeant SSgt. Jordan sets fire to the picture of Sadaam found in the house. The crowd begins to applaud and chant, exercising their newfound freedom of expression. However, the five-hour patrol turns up little. Even the presence of Iraqi policemen patrolling with the Marines fails to locate more weapons or information. Most of the Ba'ath Party officials have either left the city long before Golf Co. showed up, or the majority of the citizens are still afraid to speak out against them. During the movement back to the command post, a woman passes through the Marines patrol in the opposite direction. She stares straight ahead and avoids eye contact. She stands out because she wears no covering over her face. She also stands out because her nose was cut off and scars run across the middle of her face - a grim reminder of why they are afraid to talk. The Marines return back to the schoolyard and prepare for their departure. "More work needs to be done here," said Sgt. Nathan Nigel. "But I think we have done our part to make things better."As the last convoy leaves the schoolyard, people line the streets to wave to the Marines and thank them showing that Golf Co. had, in fact, made things better.