FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Matthew Higginbotham is one of many Marines who spend their days staring out at vast expanses of wasteland and urban ruins. He peers out at the desolation through a rifle-mounted scope, with only a thin covering of camouflage netting to provide him shade from the summer’s blistering Iraqi sun.
“I feel like I’m in hell right now, because it’s so hot out here,” stated the 19-year old infantryman from Greenup, Ky. “You’re sweating constantly, especially your feet, because you’re wearing boots all the time, sometimes almost 24 hours a day.”
As the mid-July temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the 2004 Greenup County High School graduate’s unit has not relented in continuing their efforts to rid Fallujah of a persistent insurgency. If anything, Higginbotham’s unit, Company C, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, has raised its operational tempo right beside their thermometer’s mercury level.
Since arriving here in mid-March, Higginbotham and the Marines from the unit has operated alongside Iraqi Security Forces to conduct continuous patrols, raids and humanitarian missions throughout the once-embattled city.
“We do patrols for three days, stand guard posts for three days, and go out to work with the Iraqi soldiers to help them out and teach them things,” stated Higginbotham, describing his typical work week.
He spends much of his time here serving sentry duty in various posts around Company C’s base of operations, an abandoned train station outside northern Fallujah.
Higginbotham explained. “Imagine standing for hours, staring off at something that never, ever changes. All you see is maybe one or two people walk in front of you. You can’t sit down or take any of your gear off, either.”
As he and fellow Marines vigilantly observe their surroundings, they wear 30-pound anti-fragmentation vests with bullet-proof armor plating, Kevlar helmets, and ballistic eyewear.
“Your shoulders and neck start to hurt, but you get used to it after awhile,” Higginbotham added. “The best thing to do to pass the time is to talk to the other guy on post with you while still paying attention to what’s going on around you.”
The Marines remain dressed in the same fashion while performing missions in downtown Fallujah. However, conducting these operations is what he likes best about his job.
“I’d rather be out patrolling than standing post, because then, you’re actually moving around and interacting with other people. It gives you more to keep your mind busy.”
Along with physical discomfort, boredom is another issue Higginbotham and fellow Marines battle here daily.
“You play cards and listen to music in my off time, and that’s how you make it through the days,” he said. “I just keep thinking about when the next chow time is, living from chow to chow.”
However, Higginbotham added that these everyday hardships serve a higher purpose and a noble goal.
“I think we’re helping out the Iraqi people by making their lives a little nicer, and making it safer for them by getting rid of the insurgents, so the people don’t have to worry about getting messed with while they go about their day-to-day lives,” he stated.
In addition to patrolling the city streets with Iraqi soldiers and local police forces, Higginbotham’s battalion participated in Operation Blackboard in May. During Blackboard, ISF personnel and Marines distributed hundreds of new chalkboards and school desks to many of Fallujah’s schools.
“We’re helping the people out as much as we can, and I feel good knowing that I’m playing a part in it,” Higginbotham stated.
Deployment experience has also left this young Marine with more than a lingering satisfaction for having helped others.
“I definitely appreciate things back home more,” Higginbotham stated. “I miss having running water, water that comes out of a sink that you can actually drink. Back home, I wouldn’t worry about how much water I use, but here, we’re limited.”
Despite these hardships, Higginbotham added that he looks forward to continue serving the Marine Corps.
“I’m looking to re-enlist, although I might change my MOS (military occupational specialty),” he said. “I’m going to try to do a full 20 years in the Marines. Here, it gets hard sometimes, but I’m guaranteed food and a roof over my head. It’s a rock-steady job.”