Red Dragons and Desert Dust Storms

HMM 268 Forward Operating Base, March 13-As in all past wars, someone "up the chain of command" has decided what the media can and cannot say, print or show you. For some journalists, these restrictions chafe at what they perceive to be the "freedom of the press." Most, however understand the rationale for these limitations – and willingly comply. For those who find the burden of "self-censorship" too onerous, they can always "un-volunteer" and simply go home.

That option, of course, doesn’t apply to another group of volunteers-the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are now deployed in the trackless desert along the Iraqi border. And on nights like this, with a vicious sandstorm blowing across the dry, flat moonscape, home is even more attractive than usual. Life in this extreme climate and terrain prompts a longing-not just for the companionship of loved ones-but for the simple pleasure of living without sand. One Marine said today, "I don’t think I’ll ever go to the beach again for the rest of my life."

Two months ago, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 was at Camp Pendleton, California, without any particular plans to travel-though, they were prepared for various contingencies. Then the word came down: "Prepare your aircraft for immediate embarkation." Four days later the squadron’s twelve CH-46 helicopters, their blades removed, were all packed and sealed, and the aging aircraft were lifted aboard a commercial ship in San Diego. Accompanying the "birds" was a detachment of a dozen Marines, led by a sergeant.

"Now think of this," said 1st Lt. Ken Williamson, one of the squadron’s pilots, "here’s a shipment worth more than 60 million dollars being signed for by a 22-year-old Marine sergeant. Where else would you get that kind of responsibility at that age?" Where else indeed?

When they arrived "in country" on February 11, the "Red Dragons," officers and enlisted alike pitched in to "build tents and fill sandbags-more than 20,000, that first week alone," said Chief Warrant Officer Sean Wennes.

"Why so many sandbags?" asked one of the hoard of media. "Because these tents don’t even stop a sandstorm. They sure won’t stop a Scud," replied Corporal Phillip Sapio. "Sometimes a sandbag is all you have between us and them."

The "Red Dragon" helicopters have to be ready at a moment’s notice to carry Marine infantry in a helo-borne assault, resupply units in contact with the enemy, insert reconnaissance units deep into Iraq and evacuate casualties.

At this moment, shortly before two in the morning, Marine maintenance technicians are wearing gas masks so that they can work on aircraft in conditions that can only be described as "extreme." The dust storm that blew in early this evening has made the air outside appear to be foggy. It has the strange effect of turning daylight into dusk, blotting out the sun and changing the hue of every man and machine. But the "fog" in the air isn’t water vapor-it’s particles of sand that the Marines inhale with every breath, that they swallow with every mouthful of food. It jams weapons. It clogs the intakes of jet engines and the filters of the gas masks everyone carries everywhere, all the time.

One of the correspondents asked Lieutenant Williamson if the dust and dirt would affect the performance of his aircraft. The Marine veteran, tongue planted firmly in his cheek, replied, "Dust storms aren’t allowed to affect us. It’s contrary to Marine Corps policy."