April 04, 2003

While passing through town, Marines make a few friends

By Doug Mellgren
Associated Press

Jim Panagakis, left, a member of the 15th Expeditionary Unit, holds a baby while fellow Marine Bryan Waide checks the child's mother's bag at a checkpoint in Nasiriyah, Iraq. The two Marines’ ranks were not available. Itsuo Inouye / AP

NASIRIYAH, Iraq — A flimsy donkey cart rolled slowly toward the heavily guarded bridge. In it rode a teenage boy, his legs horribly burned from accidentally spilling hot oil on himself.

The boy needed help. He found it from U.S. forces.

When the Americans reached Nasiriyah after days of heavy fighting, many anticipated an angry reception. Instead, the residents offered thumbs-up signs, cups of tea and an occasional precious cigarette in return for anything from medical aid to a stick of chewing gum.

“I think they are really happy we are here,” said Rashon Kyle, 31, a Navy hospital corpsman. “At first I had thought they were going to be hostile.”

Kyle and co-worker Kyle Norris, 39, tended to the boy after a Marine guarding the bridge spied his injured legs. The hospital workers carefully bandaged the boy’s wounds.

The teen, Safah, smiled through his pain, and the Americans provided his family with antibiotics and instructions on their use. Another Marine ran off to bring the boy some hard candy.

“Tell him he’s a good boy,” Norris told the unit’s interpreter, a message the U.S. troops hoped would spread through the locals.

Just as animosity against the Americans has largely dissipated, any animosity the Americans brought with them here has dissipated, too.

Cpl. Nicholas Beitia, 22, of Elko, Nev., survived a shootout on his first day in Iraq, and experienced the death of a fellow Marine. He was spooked by the chance of an ambush or a false surrender by Iraqi troops.

“At first I hated these people,” acknowledged Beitia, a member of the 1st Platoon, Echo Company of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

But his attitude changed Wednesday during his first house-to-house search, when he was greeted like a long-lost relative. In one Iraqi home, he was treated to “the best tea I’ve ever tasted.”

The civilians seemed terrified in the first house he searched. Beitia assumed they expected the Americans to murder the men, rape the women and plunder the home.

“Then I got down on my knee and gave their little girl a piece of chewing gum,” he related. “The father was ecstatic. It was like I was saying I was not better than them. When I got I got down on my knee, they almost started to cry.

“They brought us tea. There was a daughter in the house who could speak some English, and they gave us some fresh pita bread.”

He spoke of the tea and bread almost wistfully, since these Marines had lived exclusively on field rations for months. And he recalled how his hosts raced to neighbors’ homes, telling them to allow the Americans to conduct their search and leave.

Within hours of their work, Beitia and his fellow Marines were boarding their impossibly crowded AAV-7A1 Assault Amphibian Vehicle for a new position a few miles north. It was a tense nighttime ride, with fears of Iraqi ambushes or attacks with rocket-propelled grenades.

But by daylight Thursday, Echo company was in place by the bridge, and civilians were gathering on all sides of the desolate four-way intersection.

Few flinched at the huge intermittent explosions, caused by Marines demolishing Iraqi weapons caches. They waited patiently to be searched and escorted across the bridge by the Marines.

Safah and his family were among a group of about 60 people — women with large bundles of hay or bags on their heads, a man on a donkey, some who apparently looted a nearby government compound.

Once the teen was treated, his family rejoined scores of Iraqis crossing the checkpoint. Some waved at the Marines, or flashed a thumbs up. Others mimed drinking, in hopes of getting water — a futile gesture, since the Marines were running low on food and water themselves.

One Marine held two fingers to his lips, as if holding a cigarette. The international message of smokers was received, and an Iraqi provided him with a smoke — a rare commodity, as most of the Marines had none left.

“They aren’t afraid,” said Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sydney, Neb. “It makes you feel worthwhile being here, like you are doing some good.”

Beitia agreed. He said he’d be happy spending the rest of the war helping the Iraqis instead of fighting them.

“I’d rather swelter here (and help these people) than sit on the outskirts of Baghdad watching it get bombed,” he said.




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