FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Tom Haug didn’t really think he’d be handing out candy and school supplies to Iraqi kids.
When the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit learned in late April that it would be leaving Camp Lejeune, N.C., early and spending the duration of its deployment in Iraq, news reports of intense fighting and fallen Marines were still fresh.
Now, three weeks after the MEU arrived in Northern Babil province, Haug is wondering where all the insurgents have gone.
“I expected to be unloading magazines constantly,” said the 20-year-old fire-team leader from Morris County, N.J., sounding more puzzled than disappointed. “They told us [we would be] ‘no better friend, no worse enemy,’ but I didn’t expect this.”
To be sure, even in Northern Babil -- a pocket of relative calm between the intemperate zones of Fallujah and Ramadi to the north and Najaf to the south -- the Marines have sustained attacks and suffered casualties.
But by and large, the leathernecks of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, have favored the gentler half of the approach that Marines promised would characterize their contributions to the stabilization of Iraq.
While they have been sniffing out troublemakers seeking to undermine the fledgling democracy, they have found the area they have patrolled daily surprisingly hospitable.
“The people here love us,” said HN James Marron, 22, a platoon corpsman, following a late-afternoon patrol Aug. 18 that flooded a nearby neighborhood with hundreds of exuberant kids and mostly friendly adults. “They don’t fear us. The more they see us, the more the bad [guys] go away.”
Even so, the Londonderry, N.H., native understands that the American presence poses risks to those Iraqis inclined to help. The threat, according to Marron and the Marines with whom he patrols, seeps in to the neighborhood from elsewhere in the country.
The most dreaded outsiders are the Wahhabis, who adhere to a radically exacting interpretation of Islam and who have been intimidating local citizens who dare to assist the Americans.
Marron, who with the help of language cards issued to all members of the MEU has picked up a working knowledge of Arabic, related a conversation he had with a local man a week earlier.
The man’s brother had been working with an Army unit later relieved by the MEU. A group of Wahhabis paid the brother a visit, warning him to stop. When he refused, the Wahhabis returned, dragged the man out, and executed him in front of his family.
“Just saying that word (Wahhabi) around here freaks people out,” Marron said.
The rub, the Marines recognize, is that the very people still oppressed by fear are the ones whose help they need to root out the remnants of tyranny.
“We’re trying not to [tick] the people off too much,” said Staff Sgt. Dominick Stinson, 27, a native of Pembroke, N.H., and 2nd Platoon’s platoon sergeant. “They’re used to a life of solitude. It seems they just want to live their lives. It’s kind of a touchy balance we’re trying to deal with out there.”
The Marines of Bravo Company have conducted roughly 60 patrols over the past two weeks, averaging four per day. It is a draining pace, as the Marines -- many of them veterans of last year’s war against Saddam Hussein’s army -- fend off complacency in an environment that hasn’t seemed all that threatening.
Cpl. Michael Montemayor, a 29-year-old machine gunner from San Jose, Calif., who is on his second tour in Iraq, said keeping the younger Marines on their toes can be challenging in the absence of enemy attacks.
“It’s pretty hard to keep them focused,” he said. “But it’s [essential], knowing that at any moment there could be an insurgent who pops up over a berm and blows us all to kingdom come.”
These Marines, who compose 2nd Platoon’s 3rd Squad, barely avoided just such a fate two weeks ago, when an improvised explosive device exploded between two humvees. While Haug suffered a bloody nose from the concussion, there were no serious casualties, except perhaps the illusion that all the danger was elsewhere.
Between the adrenaline-pumping attacks and the senses-dulling monotony, the small-unit leaders look for ways to keep their Marines on an even keel.
Cpl. Hayden Kandel, a 23-year-old native of Pleasantville, Ohio, and the 3rd Squad leader, said he tries to ease stress and combat tedium by encouraging his Marines to find fun where they can.
“You have to try to make the best of a (expletive that rhymes with gritty) situation,” he advised.
On occasion, their patrol routes have required them to negotiate a canal adulterated generously with human waste. With no bridge available, the only way across was through, and Kandel urged his reluctant warriors to throw caution to the foul wind.
“There’s no reason, once you’ve established security and handed off your weapon, you can’t do a cannonball into the ‘sh-- trench,’” he said with a shrug.
Out on patrol, as the Marines navigated the streets, it was apparent that vigilance wasn’t the only required virtue.
Before dismounting their humvees, they had stuffed their pockets full of candy and had grabbed boxes of school supplies and bins of sunflower seeds. As they moved off a busy thoroughfare and into a squalid warren of homes, where the dirt-packed roads double as trash receptacles, the residents began emerging.
The Marines hadn’t advanced 30 yards before the roads were teeming with kids – hundreds of them -- smiling, posing for cameras, and clamoring for the treats they quickly learned were at hand.
The Marines had been through this before, and each attempt to distribute equitably the sweet gestures of goodwill tested their patience. The kids seemed not to understand the meaning of an upraised forefinger, as they repeatedly returned for more and more.
“The language barrier sucks,” said Haug. “You don’t want to be completely disrespectful, but you can’t let yourself be pushed around by these little kids.”
Montemayor, who was born in the Philippines and knows something about the deprivation that marks the second and third worlds, said that the frustration is an understandable byproduct of culture shock.
“A lot of these guys are astonished at how these kids are living … begging every time they see an American,” he said.
The platoon’s commander, 2nd Lt. Joseph Irwin, 23, of Culver City, Calif., said it’s important to continue “working to build the relationship with the community and keep that fragile balance.”
“Handing out stuff puts smiles on the Marines’ faces and opens doors, even though,” he added with a smile of his own, “the kids beat each other up for the candy.”
As the Marines inched forward through the scrums, Kandel, his interpreter and the squad scribe stopped at several residences lining the road. Kandel’s purpose was to introduce himself, assess the neighborhood’s attitude toward the Marines, and to gain any insight into insurgent activity in the area.
The Marines were received graciously, if not always warmly. Most of the residents answering the knock on their gate were mildly apprehensive, no more than an American might be were a group of armed strangers to show up unannounced.
After a few minutes, the initial awkward tension would ease, and by the end of the brief visit, the smiles and the farewell handshakes came easily.
When asked, most Iraqis said they were pleased with the American presence – and grateful that the Hussein regime had been toppled. While they still struggle to find work to support their families, they acknowledge that a burden has been lifted.
“Financially, [life is] the same as before,” said Attiya Sagban, 51, a father of five who earns the equivalent of $1.50 per day renting chairs. “But psychologically, it is better.”
Speaking through the interpreter, he expressed gratitude for a glass half full.
“I thank God,” he said. “Everything is okay. I’m just waiting for the future.”
Later, back on the thoroughfare, the Marines continued their patrol. Irwin and Stinson reminded them to maintain their dispersion, lest they present a fat target.
Outside a strip of stores, Kandel found common ground with a half-dozen men.
“The people here are poor,” the eldest said. “All they want is to live peacefully and friendly.”
Kandel seized the opening, making it clear that the Americans and Iraqis shared the same objective.
“That’s all we want, too,” he said. “Hopefully, the outsiders will soon stop coming to [harass you]. The more information you can get and give to us, the sooner we can go.”