Living and dying in a hot zone

During the month of November, members of the U.S. Marine Corps are celebrating their 230th birthday. And regardless of where they are at the moment, this is how they celebrate: with a cake. The first slice is eaten by the commanding officer, the second by the oldest in the unit, the third by the youngest.

For Golf Company, of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, based on the outskirts of Falllujah in al Anbar Province, the oldest Marine is a 37-year-old sergeant. The youngest is an 18-year-old private.

Both of them, along with about 150 other Marines, live in a primitive satellite outpost they call a “firm base.” This one is a battered five-story building that used to be a dormitory for a nearby technical college.

The Marines have made it their own _ the way Marines seem to do _ with large wire barricades filled with rocks and dirt surrounding the perimeter and green sandbags piled high at the entrance and covering all the windows.

Everyone here knows how necessary this kind of protection is. In late October, two Marines were killed by an insurgent mortar that somehow perfectly cleared the barriers and landed in the back courtyard where they were.

“I don’t trust any of the Iraqis,” says Pvt. Carl Gaskin, 29, of Knoxville, Tenn.

“I joined the Marines after seeing the Nick Berg execution,” Gaskin says of the 26-year-old U.S. contractor who was beheaded in Iraq in 2004. “I saw it on the Internet and it just infuriated me. I thought the least I can do is give four years of my life.”

Gaskin was a brick mason before he signed up a year ago. He says he didn’t even tell his wife first. Though she was upset, he still feels he did the right thing.

“It was my duty,” he says, “even beyond my family. God, country, family _ in that order.”

But now he’s learned his wife has melanoma. Six years earlier, he witnessed her go through another bout with cancer.

“I try not to think about my personal problems too much here. I can’t think about it too much, otherwise I’ll get people killed,” Gaskin says.

He goes outside to have a smoke.

On the ground floor hallway to the left, captured weapons have been proudly hung: a nickel-plated AK-47, a carbine with a fixed bayonet, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

In another area is the living room/chow hall. It’s packed with a mishmash of cheap, stained couches. Here the Golf Company Marines get their one hot meal a day.

One recent night, for the Marine Corps’ birthday, they feast on steak and lobster.

It’s a welcome meal, but one that seems out of place in a building that has no running water. If the Marines do want to take showers, they use a few cold-water stalls outside the building. But they’re available only from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. And with the weather already cold at night, most choose to clean themselves with baby wipes until they can get to a base with hot water, which is only once a month.

The entrance to the building is a constant blur of movement of Marines and Iraqi Army soldiers (who also live in the building) going in and out. Those going on patrol or convoy runs pull on their flak jackets and Kevlar helmets. Those finishing up, pull their gear off as they trudge up the stairwell to crash on their cots. Marines are packed nine or 10 to a room, in spaces meant for four or five.

For Chuck Segal, a 23-year-old private from Rhode Island, the space is fine. He says he was struggling before joining the Marines; he had dropped out of high school and was couch-surfing at the homes of friends.

“I was having lunch in a park one day when a Marine recruiter walked up to me and asked me if I needed a job. I did,” he says.

With a GED, but no high school diploma, he was just barely accepted. It’s given him some order and discipline in his life, he says, and some powerful friendships.

“You get really close to people in circumstances like this. The guys I’ve known here in just two months I’m probably closer to than a lot of guys at home.”

That can happen in a place so rustic that it has no toilets _ not even portable ones _ and Marines have to defecate in plastic bags, which are then collected and burned.

Lance Cpl. Tim Spier, 20, of Detroit, agrees the physical hardships are part of the bonding experience, but even more so is the potential of dying here.

“You don’t know who you’re fighting,” Spier says. “You do a patrol down the street, a man says hello, then jumps behind a berm and starts firing an AK-47 at you.”

One luxury item does exist on the Golf Company base: a large plasma screen TV connected to a satellite dish. Marines not on duty slink low on the couches, watching everything from cartoons to Harry Potter films. It’s a welcome escape from the hours spent patrolling the streets of al Anbar Province.

The other entertainment option is the company “health club:” a room scattered with rusting weights and homemade benches that somewhat resemble medieval torture racks.

Marines who have spent the day in heavy body armor toting weapons and ammunition now raise and lower the rusty barbells. Metal weights clang on the concrete floor when they finish their sets.

A green duffel bag filled with sand hangs in one corner, waiting for Marines to pound out their frustrations, anger or nervous energy.

But for some, doing the work is the only way to forget. Gaskin finishes his cigarette outside, but is still thinking about his wife.

“I think the hardest part for me,” he says, “is that I can’t be there for her. I’ve always been there for my wife.”

Find more reporting from “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone” at