updated 10/19/2004 3:59:30 AM ET 2004-10-19T07:59:30

The sound of the Black Hawk medical helicopter is an ominous sign for the Marines patrolling this forgotten western corner of Iraq that borders Syria. It means that one of them is seriously wounded or killed at the hands of their elusive enemy or the bombs he had laid in waiting.

The sound of roaring engine, shattering evening calm, gets immediately followed up with a quick whisper among the troops, trying to find out who was it, this time.

At this Marine base few miles away from the Syrian border to the far west of the restless Anbar province, the news spreads quickly.

“We are losing guys left and right,” says Cpl. Cody King, 20, of Phoenix, Ariz. “All we are doing around here is getting blown up,” he says, not hiding his anger.

Most of the incidents these days in this far flung corner of Iraq, enveloped by an endless desert, dried up river beds and winding dirt roads, include 155 mm artillery shells, mines and other sort of crude home made bombs, which are among the biggest killer of troops in this war. They make the Marine’s enemy faceless and only heighten the feeling of vulnerability, not assuaged by the limited armor at their disposal.

King and his fellow Marines from the weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, spoke in between patrols, huddled together and sifting through their log book venting their anger and frustration, but never speaking of fear.

Chronicle of attacks
Among other things their green leather bound book lists are the number of times their company was hit by homemade bombs since they got to Iraqi two months ago. Written in fine careful print, the book contains names of those who were killed or wounded during those incidents.

On Sept. 3, during their first patrol since coming back to Iraq, a thunderous blast ripped through a group of Marines that King was with, as they were providing security for the engineers repairing a bridge over the Euphrates river, near the town of Ubayd.

Four Marines were killed and three were wounded when a home made bomb went off, sending shrapnel and debris flying. Some of the those killed were barely recognizable, said King, who escaped unscathed.

Marine deaths per month in Iraq, have in recent months exceeded those suffered by the Army, even though the Army have at least three times as many troops in Iraq. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for the unusually high death toll for the Marines because they limit details on the circumstances of battle deaths to either “enemy action” or “non-combat related.”

The Army specifies the type of weapon that caused the death as well as the city where it happened.

“After you lose so many Marines, you just keep fighting to stay alive,” King, a son of a Vietnam veteran, say.

But for some of the Marines lack of armor, few vehicles and too restrictive rules of engagement are partly to blame.

“We need more armor, more vehicles and more bodies,” says King.

Frustrated by rules of engagement
Gunnery Sgt. Jason Berold, says that rules, as they are now, are very frustrating. Unless they see insurgents shooting at them or have otherwise what they call positive identification, little they can do but watch as they leg it and melt among the people.

“It is very frustrating,” says Berold, 38, of Los Angeles.

“All we are doing is getting Americans killed and we cannot do much about it,” says King, as the other marines in the room nod in approval.

“None of us are scared of going out ... as long as you get one bad guy.”

But now because of the existing rules of the engagement, the only thing left after the incidents, is to “pick up your dead and wounded and get out of there as soon as possible,” King says.

Sgt. Ryan Hall, 27, says that a “50:50” chance of getting blown up on patrol, is a good bet among his troops. As he walks outside the compound, Hall, of Abilene, Texas, points to the damage that their company vehicles, have suffered in the recent patrols. There are cracks in the armored windshield of their Humvees from flying shrapnel. Holes on the back and damage to its side.

As they spoke, shortly after darkness fell in this distant base, another sound of the helicopter signaled what they all knew.

“You do not know whether he will survive,” King says.

That night alone, only one made it, after a suicide car bomber ram into their patrol near the town of Qaim. Two soldiers and one Marine died.

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