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Iraq Journals

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Monday, March 24

Fate kept Marines out of firefight

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

SOUTHERN IRAQ - All day Sunday, word filtered back from the front lines: Casualties were mounting from a bloody firefight between Marines and Iraqi troops somewhere north of the town of An Nasiriyah.

The four Marines aboard an M1A1 Abrams tank called "Pale Rider" should have been there. Instead, fate left them broken down, miles behind their platoon, in a state of anxiety they figured was worse than battle.

"It's driving us crazy not to be up there," said Sgt. Larry Neltner, 43, from Newport, Ky.

The other 13 tanks in 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 8th Tank Battalion were expected to be at the front lines of a task force of Marines storming An Nasiriyah over the weekend.

But Pale Rider was stuck at a maintenance depot in the desert while a fake surrender by Iraqi troops caused an unknown number of Marine casualties and Iraqis reportedly captured up to 12 members of a U.S. Army supply convoy.

"We talked about the possibility of fake surrender," Neltner said. "I hope we put a world of hurt on those bastards."

As they waited for a new starter and generator Monday morning, Neltner and the rest of the crew could only send good vibes to friends likely in the thick of fire.

"There's this one guy corporal up there, he's probably my best buddy out here," said Cpl. Bret Thompson, 22, of Elizabethtown, Ky. "I guarantee it when we see him, he'll say, `I bet you SOBs had it easy. I'm up here taking rounds and y'all are back there getting 12 hours of sleep.' "

It was impossible to sleep soundly. Each member of the Pale Rider crew had a different trigger for restlessness.

Thompson and fellow Corporal Scott Fett, 21, of Lexington, Ky., knew they have proven they are elite tank operators - except on the battlefield. The two were part of a tank crew that finished second in a national Marine Corps tank competition last fall.

"Our hearts just sunk yesterday when we started to hear about casualties," Thompson said. "Being here is worse. Up there, we know what we need to do. Today, we wake up and we don't know what the hell to do here."

Sgt. Stephen Collins, 33, from Indianapolis, hitched a ride into Iraq on Pale Rider when a platoon leader commandeered Collins' tank after another breakdown.

"My tank's name is Money Shot," Collins said. "I want to get back in Money Shot. I want to be with my crew. I know I did my job training them. I have faith that they are doing their job."

Pale Rider was towed most of the way north from the Iraqi border to a supply camp. Other tank commanders cannibalized it for parts when it broke down in the first hours of the war. On Sunday, Pale Rider's crew saw medivac helicopters and ambulances staging near the maintenance yard they are calling home. But they have received no word about the rest of the platoon, and no word on when Pale Rider will be ready to roll.

So, they sat.

Collins read a novel called "Where I'm Bound," about slaves who escape the Confederacy to fight with Union soldiers in the Civil War. Corporal Fett fretted over a lack of mail.

"I know there are at least a dozen packages floating around out there somewhere for me," Fett said. "My aunt's second-grade classroom was sending letters. I'd like to hand them out to the platoon."

The last time they had solid contact with family members was in January, while they were aboard a ship steaming for the Persian Gulf. They hoped to be back with their family of Marines, and moving toward Baghdad, by early in the week.

"We're working on fate right now," Fett said. "If we're supposed to be up there, we will be up there."

The crew's spirits rose briefly Monday when they got good news from a nearby camp with Internet access via satellite. The hometown Kentucky Wildcat basketball team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen Sunday. And with the nation's longest winning streak, the team looks headed for the Final Four.

"They're going all the way, man!" Cpl. Thompson said.