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Life with the Marines in Ramadi

Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard.

Former Iraqi Colonel Thalmer

Thalmer, a former colonel of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army, but now bedecked in his straw fedora and neatly pressed slacks, looked more like a vacationer on Miami Beach than an ex-military man from the Middle East.

Throughout Iraq, I’ve met so many former colonels of Saddam’s army that I’m starting to think it’s an honorary title instead of actual rank for time served.

A lot of things about Iraq do not add up, and if Thalmer was a fake, it really didn’t matter, because as a contractor Thalmer really got results. Beside, the grunts of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Weapons Company really liked him.

In his late 40s possibly early 50s and of average Iraqi height, Thalmer wore what looked like bowling shirts and a friendly smile. He spoke no English, but that didn’t bother anyone, because he always made universal gestures of good will. Whenever he arrived at the “joint security station” called JSS Iron and walked up to the porch, he’d take out his old European-style pistol (I couldn’t tell if it was Russian or Romanian), remove the cartridge and lay it flat on the same table where a lot of Marines put their spit bottles. He’d then pull out a pack of cigarettes – Gauloise, the French brand many Iraqis smoke –and offer them to any of the Marines/visitors gathered on the porch.

Earlier that day, two Marines told me the 2/5 head command had authorized Thalmer to carry a captured Israeli-made Uzi. Thalmer didn’t have the weapon with him that day, but both Marines sounded slightly envious, as they had only M-16s.

Marines establishing their territory. Sign at airbase TQ, in Anbar
Province, plainly explains boundaries to everyone

Some Marines accepted the cigarettes Thalmer offered, while he extended a handshake to the faces he had not seen there before, including mine. I got to JSS Iron earlier that morning and a corporal gave me a little overview of South Ramadi, while I waited on the porch for the CO (Commanding Officer) to brief me about the specifics. That’s when Thalmer arrived and took his usual place on the porch, as if he had been there all along. All of the Iraqis in the neighborhood knew who Thalmer was – he was the closest thing the 2/5 Marines had for a mascot.

Wrong side of the tracks

JSS Iron was on the south side of the train tracks, arguably the wrong side of the tracks since the poorest neighborhoods were near the area that made the loudest noise. There was a “widow’s neighborhood” where Saddam settled the wives of soldiers who died during the long war with Iran. These days, the tracks made no noise, because the trains had not run since 2003 or 2004, depending on who you talked to. Being a joint security station, which meant JSS Iron was supposed to have a smattering of Iraqi police and some Iraqi Army, but I never saw an Iraqi soldier or peace officer the whole time I was there. Instead, I saw Thalmer on the porch.

On the bigger bases, there are game rooms, basketball courts, theatres, libraries and even salsa classes. But on a small combat operation post like Iron, entertainment was much more basic. Marines waited in line for the few computers near the kitchen and the phone system to call back home, but, many Marines sat around and talked more, that is, when they weren’t busy on patrols, repairing damaged vehicles, training Iraqi police or waiting to eat chow. There really wasn’t much to do on JSS Iron.

The “Venice Beach” gym area was mostly old weights, a couple of benches and a pull-up dip bar combination not far from the makeshift shack where Marines took “Navy” showers. I saw dedicated Marines bench pressing until well past midnight, but there was usually someone at the porch.

Marines on night patrol, just before a shooter hit an observation
tower in downtown Ramadi

Tribal by nature, Marines are standoffish to those who don’t belong. In Gardez, Afghanistan, I met a group of Army national guardsmen assigned to personal security detachment, or PSD. Within that group were several former Marines – it’s always “former Marine,” ex-Marines tend to be controversial – who had joined the National Guard. These former Marines now wearing Arizona National Guard uniforms had created their own little club within the bigger National Guard unit. They celebrated the Marine Corps birthday, Nov. 10, refused to be addressed as soldiers and were notorious for being too “uptight” about everything. One of them, a former recon non-commissioned officer, had an Army patch with the word “Marine” sewn into it. He’d stick it on his vest even after he had been told to remove it by his superiors. Marines pride themselves on being apart.

In Iraq, the Marines were apart, mostly confined to the province of Anbar. Many would argue Marines saw the worst fighting the conflict has had to offer so far. How bad was it? That’s debatable, but the battles that the American public can identify – Fallujah, Ramadi – are credited to the Corps, even if other forces took part. There’s something about the Marine Corps that courts attention, as if they had a knack for publicity.

When Marine units swept into Baghdad alongside Army soldiers back in 2003, it was a Marine corporal, Edward Chin, who wrapped an American flag around a statue of Saddam Hussein, right before his fellow Marines of Bravo Company 1st Tank Battalion pulled the statue down. To the American public, it seemed as if the Marine Corps was responsible for deposing Saddam Hussein and seizing Baghdad.

The whole area pictured was once a reed field where up to 50
members of al-Qaida made their home

During the Battle of Fallujah, Lance Cpl. James Black Miller, nicknamed the “Marlboro man,” was a Marine grunt smoking a cigarette. His picture was widely circulated and became symbolic of something bigger than the lance corporal himself.

Territory itself, the physical land, has become synonymous with the Corps. Anbar belongs to the Marines, although after having traveled throughout the province, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of Army, Navy and Air Force here too. The tranquility of the Anbar province is seen as a result of the Corps’ presence, and justifiably so. Of all the forces in Iraq, it seems as if the Marine Corps has not only adapted to the harsh conditions, but actually thrives. There are hints of this chameleon quality in the way Marines adapt – even in the uniforms they wear in-country.

VIDEO: Entertainment. Marines trying to vary their work out by teach Navy
Corpsman Jesse Tossetti a new way of doing push ups

From the tan “cammies” worn back in 2003, the splotches of brown that were supposed to make the work uniform more camouflaged were changed to a computer generated “digi” design that diffused the Marine outline like a mirage of water in the middle of the desert. The flak jackets went from the green woodland ill-fitting camouflage to the coyote brown combat vests. For patrols, the two-piece utility uniform gave way to the streamlined flight suit, much more tolerable in the heat and practical for the day-to-day demands of business. I saw a drop pouch attached to a Marine’s waist, a simple bag with a hardy drawstring that made reloading bullet-filled cartridges more comfortable. Only the Marines would consider comfort along with deadly force.

Back on the porch, Thalmer completed a transaction with two “sheiks.” The first sergeant thought they were fake sheiks – but that same 1st sergeant thought I should have shown up in my Marine uniform, since he was told a reservist Marine reporter was coming.

“I was getting ready to put you to work,” he said in southern accent that sounded a lot like many Marines – the South playing an intimate role in the cultural heritage of the Marine Corps. I couldn’t tell if the 1st sergeant was kidding or not, but Thalmer’s business was no joke. The high reeds to the South of JSS Iron had provided cover for insurgents who tried to enter Ramadi.

Donkey Island

Just outside Ramadi, Donkey Island itself is just a sliver of land in the middle of the Euphrates River. The island got its name for the wild donkeys that are supposed to be on it. I didn’t see any from the shore, and that may have been the reason why al-Qaida in Iraq chose the discreet spot as a staging ground for attacks within the city.

The 2/5 Marines

Elements of the 1/77th Mechanized Unit came upon it during a routine patrol, and a 10-hour firefight ensued. The 2/5 responded. When all was done, 34 al-Qaida operatives were dead, some had detonated suicide vests. Three servicemen had also fallen.

Their numbers were estimated to be between 40-70 operatives, so how can such a small force possibly hope to attack a city of nearly half a million? This is the reality of asymmetrical warfare, where a small number of hardcore combatants determined to die can effectively tie down a bigger force. The highjackers who brought down the World Trade Center were less than 20.

“They hid out in these reeds,” said Maj. Mendonca, a man well over six feet tall who was dwarfed next to the reeds lining the riverbank. Even with constant aerial surveillance, it was possible for so many terrorists to make a home, on and near the river, undetected. We took a bumpy road out to the place where contractors were mowing, cutting, burning, slashing the reeds – anything they could do to get rid of them.

2/5 Marines on the JSS Iron Porch

Walking in the now-open field area was like stepping into a sauna room. If you’ve ever heard someone describe desert heat, they’ll always tell you, no matter how hot it is, “at least it’s a dry heat.” There’s some truth to that. The Iraqi heat is very dry, so after you get used to the initial intensity, it’s not entirely unbearable, even with the body armor. But the crushed reeds baking beneath our feet made the air heavy, moister. Suddenly the humidity, added to the 120-degree-plus sunshine at the peak of the afternoon, made me think of a swamp or jungle.

In every single major conflict of the 20th century, 2/5 was no stranger to extreme conditions. After skirmishes in tropical Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd battalion 5th Marines deployed to the temperate woods of France. In the Second World War, the beaches of Guadalcanal and Okinawa were the battlefield, but in Korea the infantry men of the “Retreat? Hell we just got here” battalion fought in the subzero temperatures of the Chosin reservoir. At Vietnam, the 2/5 dealt with the heated insurrection of Hu? City. The 2/5 Marines were faithful to the Marine Corps hymn:

We have fought in ev’ry clime and place

Where we could take a gun.

In the shade of the porch, it was Thalmer paying the Iraqi men in the dingy dishdashas (ankle-length, long-sleeved, robe-type garment commonly worn by Arab men). One man’s bulbous eyes counted the money, $5,000 in cash, and then the other man with the red-checkered headscarf did the same before stuffing the stack of $100 dollar bills into a very deep pocket.

Night Vision Goggles, this is what Marines at night see in pitch

The military always paid cash – sometimes by the suitcase load. Terrorists, not entirely disgusted with all things American, also paid in dollar bills. I spoke to Capt. Robert Grayson, assistant to the provost marshal (officer in charge of military police). His office tracked counterfeit U.S. currency that originated as far away as North Korea.

Contractors competed for contracts given by either the American military or the city government. Thalmer paid his subcontractors and the job was done. This time, it was for a mosque, but a man of many talents, Thalmer had a knack for making garbage disappear. He had completed more than one trash-collection contract.

“They’re going to want more money for that job,” said Maj. Mendonca. With all the haggling that went on before they left, my bet was that the major was right. The reeds removal proceeded very nicely, with whole swaths of the land mowed down in a way that would never be possible back home due to EPA regulations.

“They keep complaining about the garbage, the stuff that’s behind the homes near the canal,” the interpreter said after Thalmer finished speaking.

The former colonel smiled wryly, as if he himself could not believe the ability of his countrymen to complain more than they actually work. No one was given money to pick up garbage in Saddam’s day. In fact, no one even noticed there was garbage under Saddam, just the discarding of things that could not be used and served no purpose. Trash in Iraq was just natural, no one questioned its removal, but Americans had so much money they were willing to pay for the worthless. Contractors responded with enormous bids for small jobs. It was a give-and-take process, and eventually men like Thalmer could figure out how to make relations turn to his advantage.

That’s not to say Thalmer, the daily visitor to JSS Iron, was a bad guy – not at all. When the Marines of the 2/5 played a joke on the man by hiding his moped and sent him running around the base looking for it, Thalmer was good natured when he finally found his ride two hours later. In Ramadi, a city recovering from a war, some people were more flexible and able to rebound from a bad situation. Thalmer seemed to be in good spirits, although there were threats on his life. That’s why he got the Uzi permit.

Maj. Mendonca

“He’s the only Iraqi I would almost completely trust,” said Maj. Elvino Mendonca, or just “Al,” a first-generation Portuguese American who grew up in the Northeast.

Of course, Mendonca was not always a major or even an officer. He was a mustang, a Marine Corps term used for an enlisted man who went over to the “brass” side of the house. The differences between enlisted and officers are many, but one of the most visible is treatment. Enlisted Marines will address all officers as “sir,” a custom and sign of respect carried over to all civilians. Proper greetings and titles are not optional in the military, especially in the Marine Corps. There are traditions and customs that seem almost outdated nowadays, but Marines will tell you that traditions and customs are mostly what set them apart.

2/5 Marine on night patrol

Since the 19th century, Marines are the designated guards for American consulates and embassies around the world. Marine security guards, or MSG, is a desirable job not every Marine is cut out for. Plenty of Marines who would like to spend two years guarding a post in Paris or Rome. Mendoca had been sent to Ethiopia, one of the least desirable spots on the embassy/consulate roster.

“Marines in smaller countries end up being much tighter,” he said. In a smaller, more dangerous embassy, servicemen had to stay closer to the base and closer to trusted locals.

“I have relations, personal relations with people I’ll never forget. Good people and I got to learn more about the country,” he said. I had heard similar comments from a fellow Columbia student and Marine, Justin White, who was stationed for guard duty in Ghana. It was a trip that changed his life.

Mendoca left the Corps briefly but came back: “I just didn’t think working in a cubicle would be as satisfying.” We were on the porch when the major offered me a “blondie,” a sweet cigar that wasn’t all that bad, although I don’t smoke.

“Even my wife can tolerate these,” the major said with a huge grin. His wife had just sent him a box of the Acid cigars from back home.

VIDEO:Ramadi regains a nightlife. This houka bar sprang up without any help
from the American military. Businesses are eligible for $2,500 micro grants and

Ramadi was anything but a “cubicle,” and on any given day there were plenty of different activities for a company commander to perform. At night, we walked the calm streets to talk to the Iraqi police officers manning checkpoints. It was the job of the police to be vigilant and make sure they knew who was coming in and out of neighborhoods. We passed by a small Houka bar, a place where Middle Eastern men will sit around smoking from a type of water pipe. In a country that doesn’t allow for the public consumption of alcohol, Houka bars are the Muslim version of a pub, a place to relax at the end of the day.

In the summer, Iraq has a late night culture. Just before
Ramadan, child at a restaurant in Ramadi

There was music and even a few people dancing in circles, while the owner served the traditional tea for about 25 cents per glass. He insisted we did not pay and thanked the Marines for making the town more secure. The bar was right next to a police station, and that night there were several officers among the patrons. In the future, I can see the property near the numerous police stations sprinkled throughout the city growing in value, since security is much better where there is a show of force. Investing in a business next to any security station would have been counter-intuitive a few years ago, as these were the prime targets for attacks.

As the terrorists were pushed outside the boundaries of the city, attacks within Ramadi were rare, but that night a shooter of some skill hit the window of a watchtower. The Marine on duty noticed a muzzle flash from an alley right before the two-inch thick glass cracked. Mendonca and his Marines walked down that same ally with a police colonel who was not very happy with the officers under his command.

“It would be a strong disgrace if a Marine were wounded or killed on their watch,” Mendonca explained to me as we went to the next appointment.

The traditional Iraqi plate. Tasty, as long as you’re first to the
table. Troops overwhelmingly love Iraqi food, but most will never have the opportunity to try
it. In fact, many troops in Iraq, especially on the bigger bases, will never actually meet an

At this meeting, the topic of the reeds and a possible return of al-Qaida was everyone’s concern. The clearance would take longer to mow down, one council member repeated. Mendonca knew they’d want more money, but a contract was a contract and the original price had been set.

We broke for lunch, a huge meal of roasted sheep on top of a mountain of jasmin perfumed rice. Hunks of meat were in the middle of a plate. At an earlier dinner, the cook left the head of the goat and the brains – apparently very tasty, as it was the first thing to go. Everyone stood around the table and ate from the same plate. Underneath the rice was Iraqi flat bread that soaks up the flavors while getting soft and moist. The trick is to use the bread to gather rice and meat, and then sprinkle on a bit of sauce over the whole thing. Grains of rice, drops of fat and shreds of meat fall on the table where there are usually no napkins.

Most of the military men and women who get to eat Iraqi food enjoy it; yet many who serve in Iraq will probably never visit an Iraqi home, much less have a typical Iraqi meal. The war is a different experience for everyone involved.

VIDEO:City council votes to have food handed out to the poor in the Ramallah
“Widow’s Neighborhood”

We didn’t finish all the food – which is part of the plan, because the second and third group of hungry eaters replaced us in shifts, until the huge plates were wiped clean. The trick was to be first to eat at the table. At Iraqi homes, the rules of hospitality always put the guest first.

After lunch, we went back to the large living room and Mendonca threw down a map of the reed-clearing project on the floor. The police chief and council members gathered around so everyone could study the black-and-white satellite views of the landscape. Getting at the reeds closest to Lake Habbaniya was going to be a problem, a problem that money was supposed to solve.

A council member announced he had a cheaper solution, as he pulled out a chainsaw from a box and showed everyone the sharp metal blades the way a magician shows an empty hat to a doubting audience. With a quick jerk, he ripped the cord. The chainsaw roared to life, spewing smoke that was probably going to stain the ceiling.

Major Al Mendonca of the 2/5 Marines, Weapons

In the middle of the living room, he shouted in Arabic and made a swinging motion with the live saw, no doubt to demonstrate how quickly stubborn giant weeds would fall, but coming carelessly close to members of the audience. Fortunately, the Marines around us were armed.

Putting your fingers in plates, dropping food on the floor, revving up chainsaws in the living room and staining the ceilings – Iraq would give an American mother a heart attack for bad behavior at home.

I interviewed Khralla Obid Awid, chief of the sub-district council who explained Iraqi patriotism during the 1970s and the initial support for Saddam Hussein. Saddam had money back then, when oil prices were at an all-time high, and “freedom was low.” Later that night, several guests spoke of how Thalmer had been kidnapped and held by Saddam.

Thalmer surprised everyone by showing up in a traditional dishdasha, and paid no attention to the comments about him. He was too busy showing off his new cigarette lighter to a Marine who was IPing his blouse with the blade of a Ka-Bar.

It’s always prudent to take what you hear in Iraq with a grain of salt, but even if just a bit of the story I heard that night about Thalmer’s ordeal were true, I thought I liked the Iraqi in the fedora just that much more.

The day I left Iron, the 2/5 Marines hid Thalmer’s moped on the other side of the base, but this time, it only took him 20 minutes to find it.

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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.