After the first few journalists were taken hostage, I thought twice about an assignment on the Euphrates. I decide it's best to meet up with an SCC platoon on its home turf of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, far from the desert heat and any rocket-propelled grenade with my name on it. I'm riding along to file a first-hand account of the boats and combat tactics in this newest phase of river warfare.
The three platoons of SCC are on rotation-six months on, six months off. The guys I'm training with are heading back to Iraq in two weeks.
The base is a sizable 153,439 acres nestled on the New River, a tributary not far from the Atlantic coast. My guide, Capt. Jeffrey Pool, meets me at the main gate where at 0900 there are already two news vans camped out looking for the day's scoop. The press has been present at the base almost every day since the war began, says Capt. Pool. "One of the big CNN anchors-Paula Zahn, I think-was down here just last week." I briefly content myself with the thought that she wasn't up for the thick of battle either.
After being okayed by a heavily armed sentry, we pull into the parking lot that surrounds the newly finished SCC building. The stifling 90-plus temps don't seem to be slowing down any of the double-timing marines in the yard. The only evidence that the earth is, in fact, baking, are rings of sweat on the shirts of the guys that boogie past. Meanwhile, I long for my air conditioner.
Down by the river, I get my first glimpse of the reason I'm here-the boats. For a split second, I imagine I've seen a ghost. Tied up against the concrete dock pilings are the dark-green RAC, which remind me of a past era, of another war-Vietnam. We've all seen the grainy news footage of Swift boats and PBRs (Patrol Boat, River) on the muddy waters of the Mekong. The RACs here are the next generation of those boats, sans pilothouse. At Camp Lejeune, the Brown Water Navy lives on. But it isn't under the auspices of the Navy anymore.
"None of the other branches of the military wanted river patrol," says Sergeant Scott Kocab, the coxswain assigned to teach me on-river maneuvers. And the jobs that nobody wants, the marines take-with enthusiasm. Hoo-rah!
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
Sitting in the RAC's forward bucket seat, I briefly finger the .50-cal and reconsider my career choice-but only for a minute. "The first maneuver I'll show you is the J-turn. Hold on," instructs Kocab. Ten seconds later we hit our wide open speed of just under 40 knots. Suddenly, Kocab, as if playing some sick joke, cranks the wheel hardover. The boat whips to port and the stern skips around 180 degrees.