In early November, Lance Cpl. Robert Shipp began a seven-month deployment aboard the USS Germantown. He was among several hundred Marines serving with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Their mission is constantly in flux — they might be called upon to provide assistance after a tsunami or they could be sent to combat. When they’re not involved in what the Marines call “a real world contingency,” the men undergo training. Each day on the deployment is a bit different, but here is a glimpse at a day in late February when the Marines returned to the ship after spending nearly two months training in Kuwait.
0300: The Marines awake in their barracks in the desert of Kuwait, mistakenly believing this early hour to be the time to muster for the bus, which will take them back to the USS Germantown.
0500: Second wakeup of the morning. The fluorescent lights shine in the barracks. Outside it is dark and barely above freezing. The men scramble to pack their seabags and backpacks. A corporal sticks his head inside the door: “You guys ready to get … out of Kuwait?” The Marines reply with a groggy “Oorah.”
0520: Outside the barracks, the Marines grumble about this being another false start. They were scheduled to leave yesterday, but a sandstorm made it too dangerous for the buses to travel. It’s difficult to see the stars through the glare of spotlights, but a near-full moon shines red above the barracks.
0600: After placing their packs in neat rows on the sand, the Marines jog to the chow hall for a quick breakfast. On the menu: grits, creamed beef, breakfast burritos, omelets, hashbrowns and pancakes. Outside the chow hall, a desert bird bathes in the muddy drippings of an air conditioner.
0730: The sky lightens, but no sun is visible because of the sand that remains aloft from the recent storm. Several buses arrive, prompting the bleary-eyed men to stand and stretch.
0800: The Marines board the bus. Many still don’t believe they will be leaving today, thinking the buses will be turned back because of the low visibility from the sand.
0822: The Marines settle into the seats on the buses and their names are called. Some listen to portable music players. Others flip open laptops to watch movies. The bus is filled with the sound of coughing — six weeks in sandstorm conditions has left many with the so-called Kuwait cough.
0833: The bus begins moving, prompting the Marines to shout. One young man proclaims, “Are you kidding me? We’re actually going?”
0857: The convoy of buses stops for no obvious reason and waits along the road for a half-hour. After the motor is turned off, the bus is filled with Marines laughing at the sound coming from one of their compatriot’s laptop computers: the sound of bare flesh being spanked. “Rewind that!” one of the men shouted, “He’s going to get an Academy Award!”
0933: The buses are again under way and one Marine struggles to urinate into a bottle while his friends laugh.
0940: The buses again stop. This time they are waiting for a convoy of trucks to pass. The convoy is heading south from Iraq, hauling trailer after trailer of tanks and Humvees, some of which appear to be mangled and damaged.
1113: The Marines spot their first green vegetation alongside the eight-lane highway. The brush is barely chest-high. “Oh my God, trees!” Robert Shipp stares out at the endless landscape of sand and says, “If I ever die here, tell my mom to play ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ “
1231: The stacks of oil refineries appear as the bus nears the port. After entering the port, the buses pass through several heavily armored checkpoints, where security officers board the vehicles to inspect the Marines’ identity cards.
1300: The Marines groan and grumble as the bus arrives at the USS Germantown. Despite the difficult conditions in the desert, the men universally say they would rather be on land than cooped up on the ship.
1415: The Marines and their gear are loaded on the ship. Twenty-six men are now housed in quarters about the size of a motel room. Robert Shipp stows his gear below rack No. 23. The beds are stacked three high, barely an arm’s length apart.
1640: After cleaning their weapons and turning them in to the ship’s armory, the Marines wait in line for chow. On the menu: vegetable lasagna or meatloaf.
2010: After dinner, the men return to their quarters and set up an array of video game players. On one of the walls is a 42-inch flat-screen television brought by one of the men. “This is pretty much all we do,” says Lance Cpl. Daniel Means, as he begins playing a video basketball game against a squad mate.
2025: The Germantown’s 34,000-horsepower motors rumble to life and the ship leaves port. Moments later, it is sailing across the Persian Gulf toward its next port of call, Bahrain.
2200: Robert Shipp and most of his squad mates are already asleep when the Navy chaplain’s voice comes over the speaker system for the nightly prayer.
He reads a passage from the book of Revelations and offers a quick sermon comparing the power of faith to the protective value of goggles in a sandstorm. Before signing off, the chaplain says, “God cares for all you sailors and marines on the Germantown. God bless and good night.”