QAIM, Iraq – The sound of the Black Hawk (search) medical helicopter is an ominous sign for the Marines patrolling this forgotten western corner of Iraq that borders Syria (search). It means that one of them is seriously wounded or killed by their elusive enemy.
The sound of roaring engine, shattering evening calm, gets immediately followed up with a quick whisper among the troops, trying to find out who it was — this time.
At this Marine base, at the far west of the restless Anbar province (search) only miles from the Syrian border, the news spreads quickly.
"We are losing guys left and right," says Cpl. Cody King, 20, of Phoenix, not hiding his anger. "All we are doing around here is getting blown up."
Most of the incidents these days, in this land of endless desert, dried-up river beds and winding dirt roads, include 155 mm artillery shells, mines and other sorts of crude homemade bombs. They make the Marines' enemy faceless and only heighten the feeling of vulnerability. The armor at their disposal is in short supply.
King and his fellow Marines from the weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, spoke between patrols, huddled together and sifting through their log book, venting their anger and frustration. They never talked of fear.
Among other things their green leather bound book lists are the number of times their company has been hit by homemade bombs since they arrived in the country two months ago. Also listed in book, in fine, careful print, are the names of those who were killed or wounded during those incidents.
On Sept. 3, a thunderous blast from a homemade bomb ripped through a group of Marines providing security for engineers repairing a bridge over the Euphrates River, near the town of Ubayd.
Four were killed and three were wounded. King escaped unscathed.
In recent months, Marine fatalities have exceeded Army deaths — even though the Army has 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," says King, the son of a Vietnam veteran.
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.
Gunnery Sgt. Jason Berold says the rules, as they are now, are frustrating. Unless they see insurgents shooting at them or have what they call positive identification, there's little that the Marines can do.
"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. 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."
Because of the existing rules of the engagement, though, 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 hurt or killed on patrol is a good bet among his troops. As he walks outside the compound, the Abilene, Texas, resident points to the damage that company vehicles have suffered. There are cracks in the armored windshield of their Humvees from flying shrapnel. There are also holes on the back and damage to its side.
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, only one made it. A suicide car bomber had rammed into their patrol near the town of Qaim. Two soldiers and one Marine died.