CAMP MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq -- It's 9 a.m. and already peaking 90 degrees outside. Any normal person would be inside sucking up the air conditioning but for a group of Marines with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, that's not an option.
They have to brave the heat to make sure no one can launch mortars or set up ambushes on their comrades.
The patrols that circle areas outside the base here are known as Zone Zulu patrols. The Marines who walk them every day know them as something else - six hours of dripping sweat.
"We rotate the times squads leave on patrol to always have a presence outside the gate," Sgt. Jonathan D. Calcamuggio, a 26-year-old squad leader with Company G, from Owatonna, Minn. "They only go for so many hours because it wouldn't be feasible to carry all the water we'd need for a longer patrol. On a mounted patrol where we drive everywhere we can go through 200 little bottles of water in a day."
The Marines left the base with a good supply of both water and ammunition. The sights and sounds of the busy highway near the base quickly faded into the quiet of the countryside. They dispersed themselves as they crossed fields and roads, circling around their base.
The group of Marines found a good place to oversee the highway in front of them and remain hidden. The sun was hidden behind a cover of clouds. It just caused weather to be hot and humid.
"This is one of the best days for weather we've seen since we got to Iraq," Calcamuggio said, looking up at the sky. "The only problem is we all look like we took a swim in a river, as wet as our cammies are."
The squad watched the road until it was time for them to move again. They walked along a canal road toward a large hill where they could overlook the ghetto of Mahmudiyah from where the camp had received mortar attacks. In order to get there they had to tackle the canal and there was no bridge to cross.
A metal pipe stretching from one end of the canal to other was the solution to their problem. It sat 20 feet above the water and was their only access to the other side so they began crossing it. Weighed down by their water, ammunition and protective gear the Marines did everything from stretch their arms out for balance to stopping to take a few breaths to cross it.
"With all the gear these guys have on, they'd sink like a stone if they fell in," Calcamuggio said. "It's a good thing we all made it across."
The squad took the hill by digging their boots into the soft dirt one step at a time, each boot sinking into the earth as the Marine inched higher.
"The thing going through everyone's mind right now is 'I hope they don't get a fix on our position and start dropping mortars on us,'" Calcamuggio said.
The Marines settled in under what shade they could in the middle of the day. The temperature was now past 115 degrees. The heat could take a Marine out the fight as fast as a bullet. The only comfort was the bottled water.
They remained unfazed as shots rang out inside the city. Every time they came near the ghetto they could hear rifle fire usually being shot for celebratory reasons.
"We keep an eye out for anything suspicious going on in the city but we're used to them firing weapons inside the ghetto," Calcamuggio explained. "It's just what they do."
After watching the city and the farms around them for an hour they moved on to their next position inside a date tree grove. Here, the land was wet and muddy, shaded by the trees and fed by the primitive farm irrigation systems. The mud clung to the Marines' boots in thick, heavy clumps, dragging grass with them as they trudged to their position.
The trees offered Marines shade but no relief from the heat.
"Being in this grove just makes the humidity worse," Calcamuggio said. "The wet mud and the heat combine to make it miserable. I think the thing we're all going to do when we get back is just stay in our hooch out of the sun for the rest of the day."
The few people the squad saw during their patrol had mixed reactions to their presence. Some of the children ran right up to the Marines and other were pulled inside by their parents.
"Some of the kids haven't seen Marines enough to be used to them," said Lance Cpl. Andre R. Daigle, a 30-year-old from Orlando, Fla. "It'll get better the more we're out here."
When the patrol was done, the Marines were soaked through with sweat and had an inch of mud on the soles of their boots but they were happy. Hot chow and rest beckoned them home. Their six hours of braving the summer weather in Iraq paid dividends they didn't see, however.
"If we didn't launch these patrols the frequency of indirect fire attacks would increase. Our presence on these patrols deters the bad guys," said Maj. Brian W. Neil, the battalion's operations officer, of Middletown, Conn. "The goal of the Zone Zulu patrols is to disrupt mortar fire positions and it does that. They deter and disrupt."
The patrols serve another purpose for the Marines on them, however.
"These patrols really make the time go by faster, even though they're tough," said Daigle.