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Marines hurry, wait, trade tales

WITH THE MARINES IN SOUTHERN IRAQ — For two Marines who helped lead the U.S. blitz into Iraq, it was the memories of battles behind them that drove them forward.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Cordero is still haunted by his encounter with a Kuwait man during the first Persian Gulf War a dozen years ago.

The Marine had been leading a tank platoon against Iraqi soldiers occupying Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War. After demolishing an Iraqi bunker complex, he climbed off his tank to check out a Kuwaiti who had driven up.

The man fell to his knees and began crying and kissing the Marine's boots.

The Kuwaiti civilian told how Iraqi soldiers at that bunker had stopped him and his family. When the man was unable to give them the money they demanded, the Iraqis raped and murdered his wife. Then they murdered his children.

That moment brought him clarity.

"That right there made it all worthwhile," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Cordero of Chapel Hill, N.C.

He and Capt. Todd Sudmeyer of Valley Forge, Pa., led the charge of the 1st Marine Division 2nd Tank Battalion into Iraq Thursday night.

Capt. Sudmeyer commanded a tank named "Striker 6" — the handle his father used in the Vietnam War.

Theodore Sudmeyer, a former Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, commanded an artillery battery in the mid-1960s in Cam Lo, Vietnam. In the event of an ambush, he would declare "Condition Striker" and adopt the name "Striker 6," he said Friday evening from his home in Malvern, Pa.

He was awarded two Bronze Stars during the Vietnam War, he said.

In addition to his father, Sudmeyer is following in the footsteps of his older brother, an Army tanker in the first Persian Gulf War and his grandfather, who was awarded an Iron Cross with the German Army in World War I.

"He feels he needs to live up to what those who have gone before have done and carried on," Theodore Sudmeyer said.

"Sir Knight" is the nickname he gave his son because of his Todd Sudmeyer's strong belief in honor and duty.

"I think it was an Indian chief who said peace is secured by warriors.

"He understands the honorable quality of being a warrior. He wants to do something positive. That's why we're in Iraq."

After the 2nd Tank Battalion outraced everybody into Iraq Thursday night, the "Masters of the Iron Horse" took a break about 20 miles west of Basra.

As the Marines waited Friday, their M1A1 Abrams tanks stretched in a line across more than three miles of dirt and highway, blocking the gates to Basra. Any Iraqi tanks fleeing the fighting to the south would face the Marines. No enemy tanks came their way Friday.

Some members of the battalion kept watch beneath a hot sun. On the horizon to the south, they could see at least three oil well fires, while F/A-18 fighter jets streaked overhead. Other Marines snatched some sleep on the stony, bare soil or talked with one another about their journey to this point.

Lance Cpl. Tim Holman's most vivid memory of the offensive happened Thursday night, when he was forced to make a spur-of-the-moment, life-and-death decision in a firefight.

Sometime after midnight, a large truck loaded with perhaps a dozen or more people emerged from the cloud of dust churned up by the long column of tanks. Automatic weapons fire erupted.

Holman, of Bonneville, Ohio, gripped his machine gun and took aim at the truck.

But what he saw were civilians. He held fire.

"If I'd seen any rounds coming from that truck, I'd have taken it out," he said. "But the fire was coming from someplace else."

Lance Cpl. William McNeal was at his side. "I was a heartbeat away from shooting," he said.

The two figured the truck was filled with Iraqi soldiers trying to surrender or refugees seeking aid. The 2nd Tank Battalion had time for neither. It sped on, pounding through the night to reach the gates of Basra.

Why the battalion rushed through the night only to sit all day was a mystery to McNeal and Holman. That the two were in Iraq at all had been a surprise. Both had expected to be home finishing their four-year enlistment tours. Instead, like all Marines, their tours were extended for the war.

Holman's wife is scheduled to give birth to their first child in April. The delivery weighs heavily on him.

"I don't know anybody who wants to be here except Captain Sudmeyer and Master Gunnery Sergeant Cordero," said McNeal, of Jacksonville, Fla.