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Tuesday, March 11

U.S. Marines preparing for historic first ó command by British

By Gordon Lubold and C. Mark Brinkley

CAMP BULLRUSH, Kuwait ó If bullets start flying in Iraq, a British general will be calling the shots for the 2,100 members of the U.S. 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

For the first time ever, U.S. Marines will go into battle under the command of British Royal Ma-rines.

The move appears to be a goodwill gesture to the Brits for being such good blokes. The United States has leaned heavily on the British government in building a united coalition against Saddam Hussein.

"Politically, itís very good," said Lt. Rob Driscoll, a spokesman for the British Navy in this dust-blown camp. "But itís a huge tick in the box of the British Marines."

There are difficulties. The two use different weapons and vehicles, and there have been some adjustment problems for the Americans eating the British chow. (Fish heads and rice drew par-ticular contempt).

And then of course there is the language problem.

For instance, the Brits refer to their berets as "berries" and trucks are lorries. And on the radios, where the U.S. Marines say "over" to indicate a break in the transmission, the Royal Marines are likely to give a reply and end it with "ovo."

"It's hard to understand sometimes," said Gunnery Sgt. Faustino Lopez Jr., of Corpus Christi, Texas. "You can't make out if it's an O or an R."

The Marine Corps and the Royal Marines have long historical ties, and they regularly train and deploy alongside each other. For example, the Marine Corps trades one of its officers for one from the Royal Marines in a two-year officer training exchange program, and a commando unit ó roughly equivalent to a battalion ó assisted coalition forces in Afghanistan.

That unit, 45 Commando ó remains there, so the Royal Marines are using the 15th MEU as the missing leg to their 3 Commando Brigade, Driscoll said.

"The 15th MEU has actually been attached to us as fourth command," he said. "Itís quite an his-torical event."

According to the Royal Marine historian, retired Maj. Mark Bentinck, itís unprecedented.

"There may have been a brief time in Korea," he said. "But that wasnít planned, it didnít last long and it involved very few men, perhaps a company. Nothing like this."

The 3 Commando, led by British Royal Marine Brig. Gen. James Dutton, will in turn fall under I Marine Expeditionary Force, the Camp Pendleton-based Marine unit in charge of overall Marine operations in Kuwait.

But since late January when they arrived here, the Royal Marines have had little to do.

"Weíre just kicking dust," said Lt. Mike Postgate, 21, a Royal Marine who visited Bullrush last week from the neighboring site, Camp Gibraltar, where many Royal Marines live.

The Royal Marines are the British Navyís tough amphibious infantry. Their recruiting motto: "99.99 percent need not apply."

While there are differences, each is slowly finding out more about the other as the long days pass here. For example, the lowest ranking Royal Marines are called, simply enough, "Marine." The next step up is Lance Corporal. In the U.S. Marine Corps, there are two ranks below lance corporal, private and private first class.

Another difference: Officers can join the Royal Marines at age 18 as long as they can get se-lected, whereas U.S. Marine officers must graduate from college.

Sgt. Patrick Love, a radio operator from Dallas, was floored when a Royal Marine told him that the British often sign up for initial contracts of 20 years or more, though they aren't always locked in and usually can leave the service early. In contrast, the basic U.S. Marine enlistment must be re-newed every four years.

Otherwise, their missions are similar. Royal Marines are a light infantry that can deploy on the drop of a shilling. In mid-January, four days after being told they had to leave for Kuwait, the Royal Marines were headed here. Thatís in stark contrast to the British Army, which received notice on the same day and only just arrived here in early March, Driscoll said.

The Royal Marines packed their kits light and brought little to the fight in the way of logistics re-sources and equipment. The brigade brought only a handful of their tracked combat vehicles, Land Rovers, two kinds of utility helicopters, and artillery.

The Royal Marines are providing logistics support to the MEU, cooking the two hot meals U.S. Marines are eating here each day.

Such a change in field fare normally would be a huge bonus for the Americans, but many U.S. Marines are begging instead for their own prepackaged, often-disliked field rations known as Meals Ready to Eat or MREs.

The Brits are providing a lot of yogurt, bread and potatoes, along with a variety of meats and sausages. The fish heads and rice entree drew groans from the U.S. troops during a recent dinner, and the other meats have earned colorful, often coarse nicknames.

"It tastes like deer meat," said Lance Cpl. Daymond Geer, an infantryman with Battalion Landing Team 2/1 from Sacramento, Calif. To be fair, though, Geer said he loves the pineapple juice.

The differences are enough to bring out the entrepreneur in many of the British, who are quick to visit the American camps.

"They like to trade, a lot," said Cpl. Jonathan Cumming, an infantryman with Battalion Landing Team 2/1 from Mission Viejo, Calif. Typically up for grabs are British berets and T-shirts bearing the logos of various Royal Marine units.

Usually, the Brits want the U.S. Marine poncho liners and fighting knives, deals the U.S. Marines are loath to make.

But a deal can be struck, especially when a British head scarf is on the table. Issued to the Royal Marines, the wraps are similar to the traditional headgear worn by Muslims in many of the nearby towns and are perfect for blocking the dust and wind.

"This is the best invention they ever made," said Sgt. Randon Stevenson, a radio operator for the 15th MEU's artillery battery from Indianapolis, who traded away a $5 pocketknife for his scarf. "Half the time, I'm wrapped up like an old lady."


Lubold and Brinkley, writers with Gannett's Marine Corps Times newspaper, are helping to cover the conflict with Iraq for Gannett News Service.