ABOARD THE USS GERMANTOWN – Deep in the hull of this amphibious assault ship, Lance Cpl. Robert Shipp was lying in his cramped bunk, trying to catch his second nap of the day.
Sprawled on a tiny square of floor next to the triple-stacked bunks were Robert’s fellow grunts. The men of the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment watched action movies, cartoons or pornography on laptop computers. They thumbed tattered copies of Outdoor Life, Time and Muscle Car magazines. Some sat transfixed in front of combat-themed video games. One Marine practiced flicking open a well-honed knife. Another, Lance Cpl. Scott Holter, of North Dakota, asked for help with a crossword puzzle: “What’s a three-letter word for regret?”
The room’s floor vibrated from the ship’s 34,000-horsepower diesel motors, which chugged away several decks below. The Germantown was sailing south through the Persian Gulf, leaving the prospect of Iraq in its wake.
There wasn’t much talk among 3rd Platoon’s 45 or so men. They were frustrated. After nearly two months of preparing for combat in the Kuwaiti desert — with the expectation of marching over the horizon into Iraq — the unit was ordered back to the Germantown to continue their service as a floating backup force.
Back on ship, the Marines stowed their machine guns, grenades and rockets.
They returned to their dark, cramped quarters, which quickly filled with the stench of sweaty boots, dusty canvas and mint-flavored chewing tobacco. Although there would be much more training to come, the remainder of the 7-month deployment had the men relying on a different set of weapons: iPods, laptop computers, telephone calling cards and pounds and pounds of tobacco. Rather than fight insurgents, the young men found themselves in a daily battle with boredom and frustration.
“Why did they spend so much money on training if they’re not going to use us?” Robert said in late February, shortly after his unit departed Kuwait.
“I just wish I could’ve actually gone.”
All the Marines wanted a chance to prove themselves in Iraq, but Robert was particularly disappointed. Iraq is where his twin brother, Matthew, has been pulling infantry duty with the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.
The twins, now 20, were virtually inseparable before they enlisted. They worked together in their parents’ pizza parlor and then bar in Hauser, Idaho. They spent weekends camping and hunting deer in the Selkirk Mountains behind their home. For a short time, Robert, who has always had a rebellious streak, dropped out of high school. But he returned to earn a diploma so he could enlist in the Marines alongside his brother.
“We always have each other’s back,” Robert said.
The twins shipped out to boot camp together and served in the same platoon through the buddy system. Robert continued with advanced infantry training in California while Matthew was sent to Oklahoma to learn how to direct artillery fire. They’ve had a few brief reunions, including when Matthew was married a year ago on the shores of Hauser Lake. Shortly before Robert shipped out, he married his girlfriend Dusty in a last-minute ceremony at the Hitchin’ Post in Coeur d’Alene. Matthew couldn’t be there – he was already in Iraq.
Being separated hasn’t been easy, especially with one twin in Iraq and the other at the edge of the war.
“I do worry about him,” Robert said, adding, “But I know he’s with a good group of guys.”
In November, several weeks after Matthew deployed to Iraq, Robert and about 500 fellow infantry Marines boarded three ships and set sail from San Diego.
The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, as the group is called, is a microcosm of the entire Marine Corps. They carry tanks, Humvees, trucks, amphibious assault vehicles, hovercraft and enough fuel, ammunition and supplies to sustain an invasion or a humanitarian mission for upward of two weeks.
The force floats aboard ships that act like huge, off-road pickup trucks.
The Germantown, for example, is capable of sailing in relatively shallow waters, opening a door at the aft of the ship and unleashing its hovercraft-led force of Marines.
The mission of a Marine Expeditionary Unit is to act as something of a foreign policy ambulance — they float near the world’s hot spots and must be ready to act whenever trouble arises. This could mean providing earthquake and tsunami relief, or the mission might involve racing ashore to help out in combat. Sometimes, after diplomatic dustups, Uncle Sam shows his annoyance by parking a Marine Expeditionary Unit off a country’s coast.
“It’s a constant state of unknown,” said Robert’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Austin Adams. “We don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going.
We’ve got to watch the news to find out.”
When there’s no crisis, the Marines train and wait. Adams said they all struggle to remain focused on the importance of their work.
“Everybody joins the Marines to fight,” Adams said. “We all hope for a real-world contingency. It doesn’t matter what it is. We really want to be able to put our skills to use. We’ve got a lot of sweat and blood into this.”
Adams enlisted in 2000, a time when many joined the military because it seemed like a good way to pay for college and maybe see a bit of the world.
There was always a chance of combat, Adams said, but the pre-9/11 Marines’ concept of war was largely shaped by the blitzkrieging of Iraq during the first Gulf War.
With the war in Afghanistan under way since 2001 and the Iraq war since 2003 – and with more than 4,000 U.S. service members dead – the young Americans who volunteer for the military do so knowing they are joining a tough fight.
This is especially true for Marines, Adams said. Of the four military branches, the Marines are the smallest and arguably the most likely to be sent to combat.
“After 9/11 the guys are all focused,” Adams said. “They want to go fight for their country. What’s getting hard for them to realize is for the most part, the fighting is over. The big gunbattles are over. Now, it’s nation building. Now, it’s just the rebuilding.”
Robert knows his tour with the Marine Expeditionary Unit is important. But he and his brother joined because they believed their bravery would help make the country they love a safer place, not unlike their Marine heroes did during World War II. Although his mission had him spending most of his time on a ship, Robert still dreams of using his Marine training to exact revenge on the man accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks. “I’m going to be the guy who busts into the cave and gets Osama,” he said.
The nearest Robert came to seeing combat was in January and February when he was training in Kuwait — he was as close to Iraq as his boyhood home in Idaho is to Spokane.
While in Kuwait, the Marines spent day after day on maneuvers in the desert. They tossed grenades, blew open doors, launched rockets and shot thousands of bullets from their rifles.
When the Marines weren’t training in the field, they were stationed at a sprawling military base. There was little free time, but the men sometimes had a chance to catch up with loved ones at the base Internet café or spend some of their combat pay at Taco Bell, Baskin-Robbins or KFC (jokingly referred to as Kuwaiti Fried Camel). There was even a Starbucks coffee shop, which seemed just like the ones back home, except for being surrounded by 8-foot-tall blast walls and the patrons sipping cappuccinos with machine guns at their sides.
Celebrities sometimes visited the base to help boost morale. Robert and his platoon missed these visits, however, including one from country music star Case Brooks. “Every time something’s happened we’ve been out in the field,” Robert said.
Before the Marines returned to their ships, they were given a day to blow off their frustration of not going to Iraq by expending the unit’s 20,000 rounds of surplus ammunition. For Robert, the day was a highlight of his deployment.
“Guns were going off, explosions were everywhere – it was badass,” he said, grinning.
When the Marines boarded buses bound for a nearby Navy port, most, including Robert, had developed hacking coughs from the seemingly endless days of dust.
The sandstorms were more fierce than an Idaho blizzard and strong enough to blot out the sun. Many of the grunts also sported jagged burn scars on their necks. The marks were seared by errant red-hot bullet casings from their intense bout of training.
They weren’t exactly the battle scars Robert had expected.
“We were so close. I just wish they’d let us cross,” he said.
Although the Germantown was sailing through turquoise waters under a bright desert sun, Robert and most of his platoon spent most of their time deep below deck in their quarters. They leave only to go to the chow hall, attend training, lift weights or to climb several flights of stairs to have a cigarette on the designated smoking deck.
Robert doesn’t smoke and rarely spends free time getting fresh air.
“Sometimes it gets pretty claustrophobic down here,” he admitted.
Stinky and small as the quarters can become — picture 26 men sharing a single-bedroom apartment — the Marines managed to make a home there. Most of the men have their own laptops, which are jammed with enough gigabytes of action movies and pornography to show a different film every minute of their seven-month tours. Sometimes, the men gathered to watch movies on a 42-inch plasma screen television carried onto the ship by one of their compatriots.
One evening, they watched the newest Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” movie, which entailed Stallone traveling through hostile territory in Burma to rescue Christian missionaries. Like other “Rambo” movies, it included lots of battle scenes. This made the Marines very happy.
“Shrapnel and blood and bodies,” Robert said, shortly after the movie ended.
A wad of Copenhagen chewing tobacco bulged from his smile.
One of Robert’s close friends, Lance Cpl. Roy Aeschlimann, of Georgia, nodded in agreement. “It was just an all-around good movie.”
“I’m watching it again,” Robert declared.
The Marines also produce their own movies using digital cameras. Their laptops are loaded with these short clips, which typically feature pranks on one another or weapons-fire during training exercises. When Robert told a story about watching a rocket being launched, at least three Marines flipped open their laptops to show the resulting explosion. Under the category of comedy, the Marines have clips of being chased by a bull during shore leave in Saipan, the bottle-juggling feats of a bartender during a different shore leave and of a squad mate’s attempts to endure a bet that involved heat-producing muscle cream slathered inside his underwear. Robert is particularly proud of a video clip showing him testing a friend’s body armor with a flying drop kick.
“Marines always make a good time,” Robert explained.
The shelves in the platoon’s quarters are loaded with junk food, beef jerky, popcorn (one Marine received 13 cases of microwave popcorn for Christmas), vats of body-building protein powder and candy. There are bags and bags of candy: toffee, chewing gum, chocolates, suckers and licorice.
Each mail call has the Marines resupplied with countless pounds of additional sweets from home. They appreciate the gesture — especially when the candy and cookies are accompanied by letters and photographs — but the men also complain that all the sugar only makes them go even more stir crazy in their limited quarters.
Robert enjoys the beef jerky and chewing tobacco – especially Copenhagen from home, which he says tastes better than the tins bought on ship. But he avoids the candy. Candy makes it hard for him to enjoy his favorite pastime aboard ship: sleep. Whenever he has more than an hour off between training or formation, Robert tries to catch a nap.
“If you think about it, if you sleep 12 hours a day, you sleep away half your deployment,” he said.
Luckily, a deployment with a Marine Expeditionary Unit also typically includes frequent stops in ports, where the Marines blow off steam and combat pay on $12 burgers and $8 mugs of beer. During a shore leave late last year, one of the lance corporals spent $1,000 — about a half week’s pay in a combat zone — in a single night at a Hard Rock Café.
In late February, shortly after returning from their training period in Kuwait, the Marines were granted a night of liberty leave in Manama, Bahrain. Before the Germantown pulled into port, the grunts were ordered to assemble on the flight deck, which was covered with Humvees, heavy machinery and shipping containers. Their commanding officer, Capt. Daniel Thomas, told the men they deserved a few hours of fun after all their hard work, but he reminded them they were in a dangerous part of the world.
“I don’t want you to become lax,” Thomas said. “There are people here who really don’t like us and who want us dead.”
Robert knows this. And he’s annoyed that, unlike his twin serving in Iraq, he hasn’t been sent to fight the people who want to see him dead. But Robert has almost three more years to serve in the Marines and a virtual guarantee of another overseas deployment.
Many of the grunts in his unit say their next mission will likely be on the ground in a war zone.
For better and worse, conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan are changing each day. With the upcoming presidential election, there’s also a lot of uncertainty over America’s continuing role in these conflicts. But Robert suspects he will someday have his chance to fight.
“You can’t end a war on terrorism,” he said.