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Dizzying turn from boot camp to combat for new Marines

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WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Iraq - The 26 young, fresh-faced Marines arrived in this camp outside Baghdad yesterday morning, their desert camouflage utilities crisp and spotless, their backpacks stuffed with fresh magazines of ammunition, their eyes - if they could talk - wanting to scream:

"How did I get myself into this?"

They stood in tidy rows here on the front lines of the war in Iraq, teen-agers mostly, sent in to replace the fallen, the Marines who had been wounded or killed during the first 18 days of fighting.

If they were at a loss for words, Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, helped them fill in the blanks.

"You might be thinking: 'Holy cow! I didn't know I could come from boot camp and be right here in the fire,'" Mundy told them, his voice straining to be heard against the rumble of tanks and the thunder of artillery fire.

As unbelievable as it may have seemed, here they were. Among the mud-caked Marines who have been fighting this war, seeing the new Marines was a little like watching a figure skater slip and fall on national television. You just don't want to be them at that moment, Marines say.

Few moments in a young soldier's life can be as awkward as joining a battle-tested battalion in the middle of a war, Marines say. They are nicknamed "new joins," "cherries" or "boots." And their first days with a combat unit can be rough.

The institutional memory argues against befriending them. They are not trusted. They can freeze in combat. They can make costly mistakes, mistakes that could expose the guy next to them to harm.

Or, if they are lucky, they may prove all their doubters wrong.

"We've known each other for four years. They don't know us. They don't know the bond. We've seen each other perform, but we haven't seen them perform," said Sgt. Nicanor Galvan, 23, of Waco, Texas, as he watched the new Marines climb from a Humvee with their backpacks.

The new Marines who pulled into camp yesterday graduated from boot camp and infantry training in late February, boarded a plane to Kuwait last month, then traveled north - 350 miles stretched over eight days - with supply trucks and Humvees to reach the outskirts of Baghdad.

Now, they were joining a battalion of Marines who have seen more combat than most other units during this war. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment has seen more action than other Marine battalions have.

Two Marines have been lost in firefights. A corpsman was killed during an ambush during the first week of the war. A corporal was killed Friday during an intense firefight with a paramilitary group of fighters from across the Middle East. A third Marine was killed when he was run over accidentally by an earthmover. Twelve Marines have been wounded in action.

"This unit has the most amount of Purple Hearts of any unit. Every night we have seen contact," said Sgt. Maj. Joe Louis Vines, an imposing Marine with a deep voice who helped welcome the new Marines.

Vines said, however, that the new Marines would not be subject to hazing as they entered their platoons. What they needed, he said, was a father or brother figure to help them through their first days out on the front lines.

For 18-year-old Pfc. Adam Higgins of Fullbrook, Calif., joining a Marine unit with a history of distinguished combat experience was just what he wanted.

"I was thankful to get 3/5. They are the most decorated battalion. Basically, they are pretty much on the front lines," said Higgins, who said he wanted to have stories to tell like his grandfather, who fought in the Pacific during World War II, had. Other Marines acknowledged that they were as uneasy as they looked.

"I'm a little nervous, but I'm also excited," said Pfc. Derek Jimenez, 20, of West Covina, Calif. "I'm pretty sure I'll see combat. To be the best, you have to be with the best."

The Marines' first day at this defensive position about 10 miles outside the center of Baghdad was filled with advice.

From their platoon leader, Lt. Adrian Heath, 24, of Phoenix, they were warned not to act like they had all the answers.

"These guys have been through a lot. Listen to what they have to say. Be very humble around here," he told Higgins and Jimenez when they arrived at his platoon.

As he passed out body armor to them, Vines warned the Marines about the hazards in Iraq. That the enemy will wait to ambush convoys about 100 meters to 200 meters from the road. That they will shoot at them with rifles and maybe with mortars. Snipers are always a hazard. "Pay attention to your surroundings," he said. "Pay attention to what the enemy is doing."

Mundy told them that their unit's exploits can be traced from World War II, Korea, Vietnam - all the way to the most recent days of this war.

"You are part of a proud and illustrious history," he said.

But this war is different from past wars. There are suicide bombers, paramilitary groups and combatants dressed as civilians. He challenged the Marines to do their best to distinguish between friend and foe on the battlefield.

"We don't mean any noncombatant harm, but if anyone takes arms against us, they are going to die, and they are going to die quickly," he said. "It's been a fast couple of weeks. Welcome to 3/5. Welcome to Iraq."

Then it was time for the new Marines to join the fighting. If they were overwhelmed or afraid after all the warnings, they had no time for reflection. They were directed to waiting Humvees and driven to the front lines.

But as Jimenez traveled out to his new platoon, where he would spend his first night in a fighting hole, he appeared most disturbed at the prospect of taking someone's life.

"I love being a Marine. I love being a grunt, but I don't know about killing people," he said, bumping up and down in the back of a Humvee. "But if someone out there would try to keep me from seeing my family again, I will."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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