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Digging in with the Marines

By Martin Savidge

CNN's Martin Savidge
CNN's Martin Savidge

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CNN's Martin Savidge reports on some U.S. Marines stopping briefly to rest and refuel in southern Iraq. (March 27)
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- I remember this item from the gear list the Marines sent me more than a month ago detailing things I might want to pack for the embed, as being assigned to cover a fighting unit is called. (Savidge: Packing for war)

"E-tool" stands for entrenching tool, or collapsible shovel.

"Do I really need one?" I asked a Marine public affairs officer.

"No," he said. Then as an afterthought, he asked me what unit I was going to be with on my assignment.

"The 1st Marine Division," I replied.

"Yeah, you'll probably need one," he finished.

A few weeks later, when the journalist embeds began, I arrived at the forward Marine base with my trusty shovel, only to find everyone in tents.

We ended up sleeping on a wooden floor. The Marines, unlike Army soldiers, don't use cots -- mainly because they're Marines. It doesn't matter whether you're top brass or just a leatherneck, you use the same bed of plywood. Fine by me.

A week later, we pushed off to the "DA," or departure area, from which the Marines would launch their drive into southern Iraq. It was a three-hour dirty, dusty drive in the back of a tracked armored vehicle.

The constant vibration and roaring of the engine had left me numb and had worn the paint off my helmet where it rested against the inside wall. It was just about dark when my cameraman Scottie McWhinnie and I tumbled out the back. "What now?" I asked an officer.

"We dig," he answered.

We were in range of Iraqi artillery and Scud missiles. Digging a foxhole was the best protection from both.

"Fine," I thought.

I grabbed my e-tool and struck. There was the sound of metal striking metal, sparks flew and the handle of the shovel bent in my hands. The soil in this part of the Kuwaiti desert was as soft as a New York sidewalk.

Then I heard it. A chorus of plinking noises rising from nearly a thousand Marines as their shovels cleaved the Kuwaiti concrete.

"You've got to be kidding me!" I thought. I began to mutter not-so-nice things about my colleagues back at the hotel in Kuwait City, tucking themselves between nice white sheets. I had to dig my bed.

Two hours later, my hands cut and bruised, my e-tool in ruins, I stopped.

Scottie and I had scraped two holes in the ground barely 10 inches deep. They looked like shallow graves. When we climbed in to test them, we found they were too short. Either our heads or our feet stuck out. Too exhausted to do anymore, we fell into them and went to sleep.

The Marines kept digging. Some worked eight hours to get a hole chest deep.

Since that night, I have dug many foxholes. We're getting better. Scottie and I dig as a team, spelling each other. But we have to borrow a shovel -- ours passed on some time ago. I didn't have the strength to bury it.

Now whenever we arrive at a new location in Iraq to bed down, the first thing I do is assess the situation. Not the war -- the ground.

When it comes to living with the Marines ... I dig it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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