ZELLA, Iraq -- When the Marines of the small outpost near this Euphrates River village of Iraq’s western Al Anbar Province aren’t responding to the latest shower of mortar fire, they’re doing one of two things – working out or sleeping.
When he’s not conducting mounted security patrols aboard his Humvee and interacting with local Iraqis, Lance Cpl. William D. Hyden, says the best retreat from the 100 degree-plus heat is in his “hooch,” – Marine-speak for “living space” – where his platoon has recently acquired a much needed commodity – air conditioning.
But the heat is not the biggest threat for Hyden, a rifleman with Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment – it’s the improvised explosive devices lining Iraq’s roadways he’s worried about.
The 21-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., has much reason to feel threatened by the deadly roadside bombs; he’s already survived two IED blasts in the past several weeks.
Hyden is assigned to a Mobile Assault Platoon, which is a team of Marines who patrol Iraq’s roads and cities while mounted in humvees. They cover large areas where the ground forces on foot can’t get to.
Hyden says life at his battle position, small outposts where Marines live and work alongside Iraqi Army soldiers, is alright “as long as you’ve got air-conditioning.”
“The heat is not so bad if you’re inside the truck and the truck actually has air-conditioning,” said Hyden. “But if you’re in the turret in the direct sunlight, you’re hurting.”
Marines who man the machine guns on the humvee’s roof wear additional body armor over their shoulders and arms, adding protection from shrapnel as well as added discomfort, according to several Marines.
“When you’re up there in the turret it’s so hot you’ll go through three to four water bottles in two hours,” said Hyden. “I’ve got salt stains on my uniform like you wouldn’t believe.”
But the heat is minimal compared to the threat of roadside bombs the Marines are always on the lookout for.
Greeted by locals everywhere they go near this region in western Al Anbar Province, the Marines are usually swarmed by children, who ask the uniformed men for candy, toys and soccer balls. The Marines don’t mind the warm greetings though, said Hyden. Still, he says the friendly atmosphere the locals provide simply masks the fact that this is still a dangerous area.
Just several weeks ago, Hyden’s team killed an insurgent who was planting IEDs on one of the main roadways in broad daylight
The team rolled up on three insurgents, two of whom immediately began running at full speed out into the open desert.
“Nobody is just running out in the desert for no reason,” said Hyden.
After the team found the digging site and the IED making materials the terrorists left behind, they pursued the insurgents on foot and detained them.
A third man opened fire on the Marines with an automatic rifle from inside a vehicle, sending bullets everywhere.
Fortunately, no one was hurt.
“It was like the scene from the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’ where the two guys get sprayed with a dozen rounds and miraculously don’t get hit,” said Hyden.
The Marines killed the insurgent after he opened fire on them.
But firefights like this are not a common occurrence, according to the Marines here.
IEDs remain the Marines main concern here, as the mobile platoons in the area discover anywhere from four to five a week. The humvee Hyden drives recently survived two separate IED blasts just days apart from each other.
“The explosion was the loudest thing I have ever heard,” said Hyden.
The detonation occurred a mere five feet from the driver side door of the Humvee, he said.
Hyden recalled the blast with sketchy details.
“I remember seeing a flash of light and was immediately knocked out,” said Hyden. “It was a pretty humbling experience. I felt good to be alive.”
Upon returning to the operating base, Hyden received a medical checkup by the platoon corpsman and was in good health.
Since then the mobile team has been finding IEDs on a regular basis. In one day they found three IEDs in a matter of hours – explosives which could have hurt or killed U.S. or Iraqi military forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to detonate the bombs.
Despite the threat, Hyden feels safe around what he calls “the best non-commissioned-officers in the company.”
He’s looking forward to his sister’s home-cooked meals upon the battalion’s return to the U.S. in September.
“I miss my two dogs, Tahoe and Mason,” said Hyden, who carries a collection of photos of his family members in the visor of his Humvee.
One of Hyden’s fellow platoon members, Cpl. Ian R. Whipple, the vehicle commander, is the Marine who sits in the passenger side of Hyden’s humvee during their daily security patrols.
Whipple recalled the second time their vehicle was hit by an IED.
“The cab of the Humvee was filled with so much dust you could barely see,” said the 25-year-old. “It was like being in a dust cloud.”
It is Whipple’s responsibility to pass information over the radio to headquarters of the platoon’s whereabouts at all times.
Whipple, who will be a father next month, said nothing has changed despite his brush with death.
“I may not like sitting in the truck in the 100-degree weather, but I have a job to do and it’s got to be done,” said the Snohomish, Wash., native.
Upon returning home, Whipple plans on spending time with his family and his Labrador-mix, “Addie.”
“There are good days and there are bad days out here,” said Whipple. “Sometimes we’ll be in the truck sitting in a field somewhere and it will remind me of eastern Washington, where I’m from.”
When the mobility assault platoon is not “outside the wire,” Whipple often sits on the hood of his Humvee and writes letters home.
The Marines said despite the IED blasts, they are seeing the results of the work they are doing in Iraq – locals are more friendly, and beginning to show signs that they trust the Marines and Iraqi soldiers partnered with the U.S. battalion.
“I’m proud to be here,” said Whipple. “I know I’m making a difference.”
Email Cpl. Rosas at email@example.com