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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Marines' wry joke: Iraq is like Hawai'i

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Marine Lance Corporal Marden Andres describes Iraq in a way that has become popular among troops from the 50th State.

Marine Lance Corporal Marden Andres said Iraq is "just like Hawai'i, but without the water."
"Just like Hawai'i, but without the water," said Andres, an 'Ewa Beach native in his mid-20s.

He and the other members of Hawai'i's 3rd Radio Battalion convoyed from Kuwait to Camp Fallujah in March to support the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Camp Fallujah is about 40 miles west of Baghdad and 5 miles from the city of Fallujah, a hotbed of the insurgency in restive Anbar province. The sounds of gunfire echoing across the desert has been near constant since March 31, when Fallujah mobs killed four American contractors and debased their bodies.

Like Hawai'i, Andres said there is no shortage of sunlight and sand. And there are palm trees outside the office he shares with Gunnery Sgt. Mark Nemerov, another of the almost 150 Kane'ohe Bay Marines who are expected to stay in Iraq for about eight months.

The 3rd Radio Battalion's tasks are to provide communications support for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and conduct electronic warfare.

Andres' duties involve the movement of the unit's equipment, and have become primarily administrative now that the battalion has made it to the camp. He works in an office that is air-conditioned against the heat, which often tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The building is surrounded by sandbags.

"Six and a half feet high," he said. "Four feet thick. Like a fortress. We did it all by hand, too."

By wartime standards, the accommodations aren't bad. Built by Iraq's Republican Guard and used, military officials say, as a training base for terrorists, the buildings at Camp Fallujah are prefabricated metal and include an Internet cafe, a PX and a dining hall with televisions. A 10-foot wall surrounds the camp.

Beyond the wall, Andres said, are "kids — standing around begging for food. People are poor. They are hot, dusty, hungry, thirsty."

"Makes you realize how lucky you are," he said.

Andres is pretty much confined to Camp Fallujah, but even from inside the wall, he can see Iraq's beauty compete with the horrors of war.

The night sky is incredible, he said, with the constellations rising against the cool darkness.

"You can see all the stars," he said.

But too often the skies are also lit by flares, mortars and rockets, some of them lobbed over the camp's wall.

"When they are up in the air," Andres said, "you don't know where they are going to land. That's the hard part. Not knowing."

Sometimes three or four are launched into the camp in a single day. One landed about 75 feet away from him, Andres said.

The office shook, he said. Things fell off the walls.

"You worry whether you'll make it through the day — or the night," Andres said. "We just pray that no rockets fall any closer. Just pray and hope. There is nothing else we can do."

"You do get used to it," he said.

He said he spends a lot of his free time running and working out. He recently bought a new digital camera to take pictures of himself and his buddies, preparing for the day when Iraq becomes a strange and distant memory.

He can go to the chow hall any time. It is open 24 hours, he said. The TV gets about 4 stations, including CNN, but he doesn't spend a lot of time watching the news.

He and his fellow Marines don't talk much about the headlines out of Iraq, including the prison abuses and recent beheading.

"You've just got to forget about that. Talk about other things. You've just got to get the mission done."

He doesn't think too far into the future. He hasn't decided whether he'll make a career out of the Marine Corps. He doesn't bother to dream of going on to other things.

"Right now, I just live one day at a time. Just live through the day. That's it."

Reach Karen Blakeman at 535-2430 or kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.