AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq --
Sgt. Dennis K. Derr II stands in front of a stainless steel-faced electric coffee brewer in the briefing room with a bitter look on his face. As he stirs the cup with his desirable amount of cream and sugar, three coffee bags of three different brands from three far-away countries lay open on the table. Marines coming in and out throughout the course of the day probably mixed together various flavors in the same brewer at separate times by accident.
“Is it too much to ask to stick to just one kind of coffee,” Derr ranted out loud. He picks up a more familiar brand to him, one with no special flavor or roast, from under the table and he scans the label. “This is all you need, right here. People should just stick with this and stop brewing up all this stuff I can’t even pronounce.”
Exotic brands of coffee brew that were probably sent from the United States in care packages are of little interest to Derr. He is more of the simplistic type who is satisfied with having the basic necessities to live off of in a combat zone- that and your average cup of coffee he says shouldn’t be too much to ask.
During a deployment in an isolated area of the desert where resources are limited, Marines can come to appreciate little things like a good cup of coffee to get them through their days. Derr, a section leader with Section A, Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team-1, said the forward operating base (FOB) they’ve been assigned to is a lot better than his previous ones because they have showers, a Marine to cook for them twice daily, a few weights to exercise and a few computers to send emails back home. In contrast to the tiny luxuries they have, the sections spend most of their time outside the wire on the road or on foot in an area of operation larger than they’ve ever had.
Located well away from their higher command that operates primarily in Fallujah, Derr and his section of Marines conduct patrols in Amariyah, Ferris Town and a small thumb-shaped piece of terrain that seems like it takes forever to reach when travelling in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) that amplifies every single bump in the road. The company stays far away from Fallujah to put them closer to Iraqi communities they visit multiple times on a daily basis.
“Life out here isn’t too bad,” Derr said. “As you can see we’re right here in the mix with all of the locals. Pretty much every time we leave, we’re conducting a mounted, dismounted (or both) security patrol. We link up with the (Iraqi Police) and the (Provincial Security Forces) and do combined patrols with them to put the Iraqi security presence with the Iraqi people and show them that the IPs are taking the lead. We’re pretty much supporting them as much as we can.
Night Patrols, Chai Tea and Barking Dogs
Streetlights were the only source of illumination during the section night patrol. Upon dismounting their vehicles, the Marines found a parked four-door sedan with four Iraqi males claiming they were headed to the hospital in Ferris Town. It’s unusual for anyone to be out on the streets at this time of night.
Derr approached the individuals on the sidewalk. Three IPs were already on the scene. Through questioning the men, he found one of them spoke more English than what he intended to reveal. While Derr checked identifications, his Marines began to search the vehicle and one of the men began coughing uncontrollably, perhaps to illustrate his need for medical treatment.
“Badge, badge,” Derr requested from the men. As they pulled out their IDs, the man continued to cough. Derr looked at the man, puzzled whether the uncomfortable hacking was truly that bad or a little over the top. “You alright, man?,” Derr asked.
“I am go to the hospital,” one man intervened.
“What hospital,” Derr asked. The man pointed up the street up began to respond with more broken phrases.
“You speak English,” Derr declared. The man pinched his fingers together and said, “a few”.
“No, no … you speak more than a few. Don’t lie to me,” he said, which evoked a little laughter from everyone.
It seemed the men were doing no wrong that evening, only sitting in a strange place at a strange hour. In situations like this, Derr and his Marines may have to accept a story like ‘my friend is sick’ for what it’s worth. The suspicious vibe faded after the car was searched clean. The coughing man then proceeded to light a cigarette. “Ah, don’t do that, tell him that’s killing him,” Derr joked to the men.
After the brief encounter, the men were free to go. As the sedan drove off, Derr watched them the entire way down the street to confirm their destination was to the hospital.
“Hey team leaders, while we’re moving through here, turn your radios down a little bit and utilize noise discipline,” Derr radioed to his Marines as they began their patrol away from the streetlights into the darkness.
The section passed around the local cemetery through pitch dark. The only sounds came from rumbling generators of nearly every house. The only things louder than the generator rumbles were the stray dogs, torrents of barks came from every dark alley and open field. Commonly, once one dog starts, every dog in the neighborhood has to join in.
“Well if it weren’t for the dogs, nobody would know we were here,” Derr whispered.
About a kilometer off in the distance, a bright orange light shines over Ferris Town. Derr and his Marines routed their patrol through an alley where several men and children were congregated, some conversing and some playing dominoes. There were blankets bunched up in the middle of the pavement that Derr noticed. He radioed his Marines to stop so he could check badges.
Derr didn’t take any chances with the out-of-place blankets, telling the men in the alley to clear them out of the way.
The men removed the blankets from the street and presented their badges. To assure they were harmless, they invited Derr and his Marines to have a cup of chai tea just for passing through. As strange as it would seem to sit down in a dark alley with a group or strangers to have tea, Derr said it was better to accept than be rude.
“A lot of times you’ll find Iraqis are very hospitable,” Derr said. “They always want to give you something to eat, something to smoke and something to drink. Instead of me disrespecting them by pushing on, I said I’d stay and have one quick glass with them. It keeps a good relationship between each other. I respect them, they respect me. It makes our life a lot easier around here. ”
Even without a language interpreter, Marines and Iraqis often seem to develop entertaining interactions with each other all of the time. They’ll often look for commonalities they share, such as how much they both like chai, how many babies they have or significant others in their lives. They’ll joke around and wheel-and-deal with each other, ‘How much for a T-shirt’ or ‘I’ll give you this much for your flashlight,’ although both sides probably recognize the value of a dollar (or dinar for that matter) the same way.
After a glass of chai, a couple of laughs and kicking the soccer ball back and forth a few times with the little boys, Derr and his Marines determined the people were just enjoying their freedom to hang out in the open air at night.
“It’s a lot hotter now and it’s getting close to summer,” Derr said. “The locals spend a lot of time outside in the evening as opposed to being inside because it’s a little cooler for them. These guys did have their setup in the road. I just made them move it off to the side so they don’t get hit by any vehicles. It’s just your regular locals out here playing dominoes.”
Derr said no one’s badges were expired and there was no reason to remain suspicious of anything in the alley. Before they wore out their welcome, Derr and his Marines said goodbye and continued their patrol into the night.
Derr, His Marines and Operation Iraqi Freedom
Derr, the 26-year-old from Pennsylvania, originally joined the Air Force in 1999. He spent five-and-a-half years with the military police (now security forces), one year as a corrections officer in Pennsylvania and is now on his second deployment with 3rd Bn., 6th Marines in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Back at Weapons Company’s FOB, Derr sat with his metal canteen cup of coffee and reflected on life in Iraq, his company and the changes he has seen over time.
“A lot has changed even since last year,” Derr said. “We have a lot more cooperation with the Iraqi Police and the PSF. They weren’t as established as they are now. Now they’re a lot more legitimate and they’re starting to take this into their own hands so we (Coalition Forces) can fall back. That’s just in the last nine months, so it’s pretty significant.”
Derr described his relationship with his company and the other Marines he has trained and operated with.
“We’re a pretty tight company overall,” Derr said. “We have our fun times, but when it’s time to work, we work pretty hard. When we’re not working, then it’s time to relax and mellow out a little bit. As a company, we work well together and we’re very close. We had the entire (predeployment) workup together. We bonded pretty well at CAX (the combined arms training exercise, Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms, Calif.). We have a lot of new guys. But the new guys seem to grasp the concept of how things operate out here. Even transitioning the older guys from a combat kinetic environment to a not-so kinetic environment is going smooth.”
Derr, who is married with his first child due in July, said his motivation comes from his intention to return his section safely to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., and knowing what awaits him back home.
“My motivation every day is to go back and meet my son,” Derr said. “(For now) it’s to go out, accomplish the mission and take care of my Marines. For the group of us who stepped onto that bus in North Carolina, my only goal is to get us home and then concentrate on being a family man and learn what it’s like to be a father.”