IRAQ IN TRANSITION

Round 3 for Marines in Iraq
`They're tired. . . . tired of being here,' a chaplain
says. But the men of `Darkside' battalion, who toppled
Hussein's statue in '03 and fought in Fallujah in '04,
are back again.

By Mike Dorning
Tribune correspondent
Published March 10, 2005

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Nicholas Renkosik spent
his 21st birthday battling to take a bridge on the
outskirts of Baghdad. On his 22nd, he was hit in the
jaw by shrapnel from a roadside bomb that detonated
near his vehicle in western Iraq.

Next month, the gangly, 6-foot-2 Marine from
Davenport, Iowa, turns 23. And once again he is in
Iraq--on his third tour of duty.

"I feel like I'm doing the right thing," said
Renkosik, who could have remained in the United States
because of a shoulder injury but went overseas again
with his unit.

Renkosik's unit, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine
Regiment, provided one of the enduring images of the
fall of Baghdad, toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein
before cheering Iraqis and a worldwide television
audience.

The unit is once again part of a signature moment: In
January, it became the first Marine battalion to
return to Iraq for a third deployment, according to a
Marine Corps spokesman. More are to follow.

With less than six months in the U.S. between
deployments, said Cpl. Kellen Scott, 22, of West
Chicago, Ill., "it almost seems like I never left Iraq
and my time home was just a dream."

On the first deployment, Lance Cpl. Dusty Lansdorf's
family was anxious but supportive. On the second, they
were incredulous that he had to return, said Lansdorf,
22, of Oroville, Calif.

Their reaction this time: "Don't go. You're rolling
the dice too many times."

The unit's tough schedule is testament to the heavy
burden America's ground forces have shouldered in a
fight that has gone on much longer than the Pentagon
planned, against more tenacious resistance than
expected.

The men of "Darkside," as the battalion is nicknamed,
have been present for many of the high points and low
moments in a conflict that has taken plenty of
unexpected turns. More than half the unit's 800
Marines have been with the unit for all three
deployments.

They speak of pride in having been part of a historic
moment that their children and grandchildren will read
about. But they also murmur of weariness with their
repeated deployments.

"They're tired. They're tired of being here," said
Navy Lt. Matthew Weems, the battalion's chaplain.

During the drive to Baghdad that began two years ago
this month, these men spent weeks in armored vehicles
packed shoulder-to-shoulder in stifling, full-body
bio-chemical gear. They weathered a sandstorm so
fierce that an outstretched hand could disappear in
the swirling brown air. They fought through mortars,
rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire to take a key
bridge.

And afterward, they were welcomed with flowers and
dancing in the streets by residents of the Iraqi
capital.

A year later, after American contractors' bodies were
burned and hanged in Fallujah, these same Marines
fought their way into the western Iraqi city, battling
block by block, only to be forced to give up the
ground. Higher-ups called off the offensive. It was a
painful setback that ate at many of the Marines during
the months of monotonous duty in the Iraqi desert that
followed.

Now they are in Fallujah again. This time they
encountered a city largely in ruins, after an
offensive that retook the town in November. Shortly
after the unit returned, the Marines were witnesses to
a triumph of sorts, a small but brave stream of city
residents who defied insurgent threats to vote in
Iraq's first free election in half a century.

In the days and months ahead, Darkside will bear the
duty of maintaining control in a place that, while
quiet now, remains awash in weapons and insurgent
sympathizers. Just last week, Marines discovered a
buried weapons cache near Fallujah containing hundreds
of rockets and some 6,000 rounds of ammunition.

They consider the deployments a sign of confidence in
their unit's ability to handle tough situations, but
the assignments also stir up frustration.

Most in the battalion thought they were finished with
Iraq after bringing down Hussein. They were stunned in
February 2004 when they were summoned back during a
deployment to Okinawa, Japan, because of a
deteriorating security situation.

Though the third deployment came as no surprise, its
timing did. The Marines' Christmas leaves were cut by
half as the battalion was rushed to Iraq nearly two
months ahead of schedule because of concerns that the
January elections would be disrupted.

Many resigned to more tours

Many in the unit said they are resigned to the
likelihood that the battalion will be called to Iraq a
fourth and fifth time.

Many said they want no part of it.

"How do we get through a third deployment?" asked Cpl.
John Woodham, 22, of Dothan, Ala. "This will be the
last time we do this. When we get back, we're
done--out of the Marine Corps."

Despite a re-enlistment bonus of $18,000 for corporals
and $21,000 for sergeants, Marines up for
re-enlistment in the next year overwhelmingly say they
plan to leave, said Staff Sgt. Michael Hunt, the
battalion's retention specialist.

In many cases, Marines with months of service
remaining have lined up civilian job offers or early
acceptance at colleges. Often, parents anxious about
their sons' safety have found jobs for them when they
get out. It is something Hunt had rarely seen.

"From the colonel on down to the company and platoon
commanders, everybody is concerned about who's going
to be around for the next deployment, who's going to
train the young Marines for the next time," Hunt said.

Living conditions are rudimentary for the battalion's
line companies, positioned in patrol bases across
southern Fallujah. India Company is stationed in a
bombed-out soda bottling plant. Kilo Company is in a
compound of houses with a hole blasted through a wall.

The room shared by the company's platoon commanders is
pockmarked on all four walls and the ceiling from a
grenade explosion during November's fighting.

There is one hot meal delivered every other day.
Showers are available only when Marines pass through
the battalion headquarters on the edge of the city,
usually about once a week but sometimes less
frequently, officers said.

The Marines rarely complain about their
accommodations. Last year, most of them lived in tents
and had no electricity.

But for warriors trained to take ground and kill the
enemy, the duties of an occupying force patrolling
streets are uncomfortable. And they remain frustrated
with a faceless opponent who fights with roadside
bombs and blends with the civilian population.

They also cite the strain of time away from family
during deployments and even during the brief periods
at home, which are filled with intense training
schedules and extended exercises in the field to keep
the unit prepared for duty.

`My wife has put me on notice'

"I have 13 years in the Marine Corps, and my wife has
put me on notice: If we have another deployment, I
have to choose between the Marine Corps and my wife,"
said Lt. Brian Sitko, 33, the battalion's adjutant,
who was commissioned an officer after service in the
enlisted ranks.

But the Marines remain focused and determined, their
leaders say. Since the war began, 10 of Darkside's
members have been killed in action and 46 wounded. The
unit knows firsthand the need for vigilance.

This deployment may have given the Marines "a bad
taste in their mouth," said Staff Sgt. Michael
Robinson, 32, of Fayetteville, N.C.

But "they understand the mission. They accept it. And
they're going to do it."