Semper fighter

Marine finds tension, boredom on the road to Baghdad
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2003


He had gone 48 days without a shower — and when he sat in Saddam Hussein’s marble and gold bathtub, there was only one thing missing: water.

Steven A. Lefevre, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, recalled that moment with a laugh, as he wound up a two-week leave late last month mostly spent with members of his family who live in Warren, North Brookfield and New Braintree.

“It was jaw-dropping beautiful,” Sgt. Lefevre exclaimed while describing the deposed Iraqi leader’s palace in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. “Marble everywhere, lined in gold. The richest people in America don’t live that well.”

Sgt. Lefevre, who will turn 26 on Friday, joined the Marines eight years ago, shortly after graduating from Quaboag Regional High School in Warren. He serves as a lead scout with the Third Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, known as the “Wolf Pack.”

During the war in Iraq, he was one of six Marines in an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle, part of a company leading the march on Baghdad. They traveled fast, he said, and their job was to find routes for the “ground pounders” to advance and fight.

Moments of tension and fear punctuated periods of intense boredom as the men battled 100-degree temperatures and swarms of gnats, flying ants and mosquitoes.
Sgt. Lefevre and his unit were caught in a 90-minute fight outside Tikrit not long after spending five seemingly endless days sitting in one spot while waiting for fuel and chow to catch up with them. Sweating in sweltering heat, Sgt. Lefevre started digging a hole in the desert just for something to do. Two buddies joined in. They worked at it for five hours and managed to go four feet down.
“It was tough dirt,” Sgt. Lefevre remembered, “a good workout.”
When they were ordered to move in the middle of the night, Sgt. Lefevre had three minutes to fill in the hole.
Sgt. Lefevre doesn’t match the image of the stereotypical Marine. He is easygoing, and the sparkle in his blue eyes hints at a ready sense of humor.
“Most Marines are pretty intense,” he allowed. “I’m a pretty friendly guy. When in uniform, I’m gung-ho. On weekends I’m relaxed. I like to have fun.”
Asked about the bars on his uniform — which he had obligingly donned for a photographer — Sgt. Lefevre mentioned duty in Kosovo and Liberia. At the suggestion that he would soon sport more “salad” for service in Iraq, he quipped, “I’ll have to work out and get a bigger chest.”
It seems, though, that serving in Iraq required more fortitude than humor.
Along with two other scouts, Sgt. Lefevre’s unit was composed of a commander, a driver and a gunner. They were responsible for setting up defensive positions when the vehicles in their company were at a halt.
As they moved across the Iraqi desert — doing about 45 mph — they were completely cut off from the outside world, except for the occasional sports score relayed to them by Fox TV reporter Rick Leventhal, who was embedded with their battalion.
“People at home have said they saw me on TV,” Sgt. Lefevre remarked. “But I doubt it. We all look alike — glasses, short hair, skinny.”
At one point, they heard rumors that the war was not going well for coalition forces, but it didn’t seem possible.
“We were having an easy time,” he said. “The roads were freshly paved. There were no roadblocks, no barriers.”
Sgt. Lefevre ate once a day — a 3,000-calorie military meal, known as an MRE. The favorite among the men was a hamburger patty. “We fought over it,” Sgt. Lefevre said.
As the Marines approached Baghdad, Sgt. Lefevre’s battalion was ordered to skirt the capital city and move on to Tikrit. While heading north, the Marines were tipped off by Iraqis to the presence of American POWs. Sgt. Lefevre’s company provided security when Delta Company moved in to rescue the servicemen — a woman and six men — who were found walking along a road near Samarra.
The battle in which Sgt. Lefevre’s company was involved near Tikrit began after helicopter pilots informed them there was “activity” ahead.
A short time later, Sgt. Lefevre recounted, “My buddy says, `I think we’re in a firefight.’ ”
The sergeant put on his night-vision goggles and looked out of his vehicle. “We were taking rounds on both sides,” he said.
They pulled back and waited in a defensive position, while the fighting units engaged the enemy.
“It lasted an hour and a half,” he said. “We couldn’t advance. We waited until dawn. It seemed like forever.”
The Marines entered Tikrit without a fight. Sgt. Lefevre recalled people pouring onto the streets to return to their homes.
“For the most part, people were very happy,” he said, “but you never knew. You couldn’t let your guard down once.”
Saddam’s palace was completely intact, Sgt. Lefevre said, and the men took turns snapping pictures of each other sitting in the huge marble bathtub.
The Marines remained in the city until they were relieved by the Army’s Third Infantry Division three weeks after President Bush declared major combat over on May 1.
In Sgt. Lefevre’s view, the war was “absolutely justified.”
“The man was an evil dictator,” he said of Saddam. “It makes you feel good. People shouldn’t have to live like that.”
He laments the battle-related deaths of more than 50 servicemen since the official end of hostilities, but he is not surprised.
“There are so many people over there, you aren’t going to be able to control everybody,” he said. “It’s sad there are people dying. We’re supposed to be peace-keeping and trying to help out. You’ve got your extremists everywhere.”
Sgt. Lefevre first tried to join the Marines when he was in ninth grade.
“I didn’t like school,” he said. “They sent me a letter and told me to get back to them when I was a senior.”
When a recruiter turned up at Quaboag in the spring of 1995, 17-year-old Steve Lefevre approached him and announced: “I’m ready.”
Besides the six-month peacekeeping tour in Kosovo and guarding American and British embassies in Liberia, Sgt. Lefevre has been deployed to Okinawa, Japan, twice. He also served in Egypt for three months immediately after 9-11. He said he and his buddies were upset that they were not deployed to Afghanistan. They like being where the action is.
Sgt. Lefevre is now back at his home base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., waiting to hear whether he will be promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. He hopes to be assigned to a three-year stint with the Marine Security Guard, which patrols U.S. embassies around the world.
He feels that he is a good fit with the Marines.
“I love to travel. I love having the spotlight on me. Everyone looks up to the Marines,” he said with a wide smile.