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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 25 March, 2003, 02:13 GMT
Marines' harsh desert existence
By Richard Edwards
Pool reporter of the Western Daily Press, with British Royal Marines in Iraq

Royal Marines in southern Iraq
Royal Marines are central to the UK's contribution

Five days ago I entered Iraq. Six days ago I had my last proper wash and change of clothes. My last decent meal and morning lie-in I cannot remember.

This is the life of an "embedded" reporter - a life on the hoof with the Royal Marines where "sleep is for the weak" and food is designed to negate your need to go to the toilet. Glamorous it is not.

When I entered Iraq I expected to see the firefights, hear the explosions, taste and smell life and its frailty in the face of war.

Much of this I have done.

But I did not expect to spend quite so long trying to shave, digging a different trench to sleep in each night, or craving a piece of toast with Marmite in the mornings.

To the untrained outsider just the smallest tasks, like washing, cooking and shaving, become major, laborious missions
It is the little things that everyone misses.

For the past half week I have awoken, alongside Marines, in the strange, cold and featureless surroundings of southern Iraq. Immediately the day fits into routine.

The Commandos rise between 0300 and 0500 and make a "wet" - a brew made with as much instant tea powder as white sugar.

Rations follow for breakfast, ranging from the delicious hamburger and beans mix to corned beef hash or meatballs in tomato sauce.

Huddling around a mini stove, face still covered in layers of dirt and clinging to the "wet" for warmth - for those first few minutes of the day the Marines could be anywhere in the world.

Dirt problem

The fact they are at war in Iraq, many have said, is a surreal feeling.

But to the untrained outsider just the smallest tasks, like washing, cooking and shaving, become major, laborious missions.

Within seconds of washing and dressing there is a layer of fine grit between you and your clothes. It gets in the food, between toothbrush bristles, inside the ears and between the toes.

At the other end of the day, going to bed is almost a chore.

I shut my eyes and pray the scorpions stay away
Strict "light discipline" means no torches or any kind of white light can be used after dark.

Before that time the soldiers will have found their spot for the night, cooked some food and gone about digging their beds.

Every night, at a new location, I do the same. For two minutes my shovel breaks through the soil like a knife through hot butter.

I am keen, fast and I can sense rest and sleep so close. The next 45 minutes, however, is sheer, backbreaking hell.

Filling sandbags, stacking them, digging deeper until, finally, there is enough room for a dirty sleeping bag in my trench.

I shut my eyes and pray the scorpions stay away.

Every little thing takes a long time and waiting - for the water to boil, for the helicopter to arrive, to find a place we can start to dig - is a constant factor.

But the Marines are patient, knowing the hours of monotony will be dotted with bursts of adrenaline and terror. Their camaraderie and humour is inspiring.

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