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Marine Battalion Prepares for Third Tour in Iraq

March 19, 2007 at 3:01 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: A Marine unit called Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, or Fox 2/5, is embarking on its third tour of duty. Special correspondent Mike Cerre has been embedded with them in Iraq twice before, and he met up with Fox 2/5 in Twentynine Palms, California, as they trained for their latest deployment.

MIKE CERRE, NewsHour Special Correspondent: It sounds like Iraq, looks like Iraq, and these villagers are Iraqi nationals helping the Marines of Fox 2/5 get ready to go back to their home away from home for the past four years.

SOLDIER: For your safety stay inside your house.

MIKE CERRE: Sergeant Chris Gibbs and his company are going back to Iraq for a third tour of duty this month, nearly four years to the day of the invasion.

SGT. CHRIS GIBBS, U.S. Marine Corps: It kind of brings back memories, like the training we were doing when we were all on the tracks and everything, it brought me back to the days when you were with us over there.

MIKE CERRE: When I first embedded with Fox 2/5 in March 2003, they were unexpectedly one of the first American units to invade Iraq. Chris Gibbs and most of his fellow Marines were fresh out of training. Most had enlisted soon after 9/11 to join the war against international terror.

Fox 2/5’s abstract notion of combat became the terrifying of reality of war, in a three-day series of ambushes on their final approach to Baghdad. They suffered their first casualties and fatality on April 4, 2003.

When they finally entered Baghdad through Saddam City — now called Sadr City and controlled by Shia militia — they were received as the liberators they’ve always believed themselves to be. During their occupation mission in the spring and summer of 2003, they never fired a shot. The local Iraqis hosted a barbecue for them before they left.

Their proud homecoming was their “mission accomplished.”

Why they do it

MIKE CERRE: When you left, and you guys did that kind of victory lap through Baghdad, did you think that war was over for you? Did you think that was going to be it?

SGT. CHRIS GIBBS: Honestly, yes. The way that everyone was acting, I thought it was over. I thought maybe a few scuffles here and there afterwards from people that were just really loyal to Saddam still, but I definitely was not expecting this.

MIKE CERRE: Sergeant Chris Gibbs and Fox 2/5 were deployed to Iraq a second time, 16 months after they returned home. Now, 15 months later, after serving in various other missions abroad, he's going again.

Most Marines serve four years of active duty, unless, like Gibbs, they re-enlist.

I think everyone who's probably watching a show like this is going to be saying to themselves, hey, he doesn't have to do this. You could have gotten out of this. You've done your deal; you've done your duty over there. Why go back and do it a third time?

SGT. CHRIS GIBBS: I do it for my friends, who are like my brothers to me, like my family. These guys that are mostly going over there are guys that I personally trained. I do consider them as brothers, and I want to make sure I can go over there, do my part and bring them back.

MIKE CERRE: Of the Fox 2/5 Marines who could have avoided this third deployment to Iraq, due to normal discharges and transfers, more than 90 percent volunteered to stay in the Marines and with the unit. First Sergeant Andrew Goulding was not surprised.

1ST SGT. ANDREW GOULDING, U.S. Marine Corps: I like to think -- I mean, I know I do it out of patriotism, you know, I do it for my country. You know, I mean, I got 21 years in, and I have -- you know, this is my third deployment in three years.

But this is a Marine's heart; that's where I want to go.

MIKE CERRE: Is that it? Is that -- try to explain that to people, if you can get them to be focused on the Marine Corps, is that even more important than the geopolitics of it all?

ANDREW GOULDING: For me, it's a sense of the Marines, you know, the brotherhood of the Marines. But that's obviously only personally. The rest of the Marines who extended, I like to think they do it for the love of the Corps, also.

MIKE CERRE: His predecessor as the unit's top NCO, First Sergeant Ed Smith, delayed his scheduled retirement in 2003 to stay with Fox 2/5 for their first deployment to Iraq. He was the unit's only fatality during their first tour of duty.

One who chose not to re-enlist

FORMER CPL. JOSH HISLE, U.S. Marine Corps: Oh, yes, I thought it was over, because Bush and the entire world said it was over. When I got home, I thought that was the end of it. We were all pretty happy to be home and, you know, good-bye Iraq.

MIKE CERRE: Former Cpl. Josh Hisle, now back home in Ohio, is one who's not going back a third time. He went back for his and Fox 2/5's second tour of duty at the end of 2004 to a much different war in Ramadi, the bitterly contested provincial capital in the Sunni triangle.

JOSH HISLE: It was more about survival. We were hooking and jamming with guys, we didn't know who they were. You know, someone could shoot at you in plain clothes, walk right by you, and you couldn't really do anything about it. It was a scrap. It was an all-out cockfight.

MIKE CERRE: During this second tour, the Marines' transition from liberators to occupiers was obvious, Hisle says.

JOSH HISLE: I started to feel bad about what I was doing. We bring violence into an area that there isn't violence, not because we want to, but because that's when the enemy hits us. Bust a door in, wake the kids up, throw them all in the living room, grab the dad, take him away, blindfolded and cuffed.

And you know we're letting him go in two days. So I kind of felt like I was messing with people's lives that I didn't need to be.

MIKE CERRE: Josh Hisle decided against re-enlisting for a third tour and is trying to make it as a singer-songwriter with his original compositions about the war.

JOSH HISLE: I'm not against war. It's necessary sometimes. I just don't think it's necessary now in Iraq.

The wasted times that we had over there, and the missions that we were on that didn't accomplish anything, and all the friends we lost with no finish. They're still dead, and the war is still going on.

SGT. CHRIS GIBBS: Oh, I already miss his music. It was definitely a morale booster. He always, I guess you could say, lifted everybody's spirits up with the music to make us, you know, get our minds off things. And it makes you look at the funny part of it.

MIKE CERRE: Are you surprised that a lot of his music now, I guess you could say, is more antiwar?

SGT. CHRIS GIBBS: Everyone thinks their own way. Someone's antiwar by all means, you know, go ahead and do it. It's a free country. All I ask is for people to support the troops.

JOSH HISLE: ... all the Marine soldiers who didn't come back from Iraq yet, and those who are in the ground right now...

MIKE CERRE: Public sentiments about the war, political debates over the new strategy, and even differing opinions within the Fox 2/5 family will have little effect on this next chapter of their Iraq war story. For them, the one consistent mission over the years is to look out for each other and bring everyone home.

GWEN IFILL: Since that story was filed, Fox 2/5 has deployed to Iraq and suffered two casualties. One Marine has returned to duty. The other is being treated for his injuries at Camp Pendleton's Naval Hospital.