ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ
Raider Platoon's final combat patrol in Iraq hardly felt like a transition. During the miserable graveyard shift, the rain-lashed armored vehicles cut along a dark ribbon of highway, east of Fallujah, scouring the cold night for enemies.
None could be found. Raider's last mission closed in gray daybreak, with mudcaked boots and little fanfare.
The dream of homecoming is finally turning to reality for the US marines of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR), Charlie Company, a key element of the invasion of Fallujah last November.
Their war over for now, this week the marines turned in excess ammunition, grenades, and explosives before beginning the long convoy to Kuwait, by ship to Okinawa, Japan, and finally a mid-April flight to Camp Pendleton, Calif. But as that day draws nearer, the marine scouts of Raider One - the "Death Dealers" - are grappling with emotions that range from joy at safe deliverance to anxiety about slotting back into mundane lives that lie ahead.
In Fallujah they fought and bled, testing themselves in ways they never imagined - leaving an entire city in ruins while hunting insurgents house to house, room to room.
"It's very depressing, actually," says Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc. "Fallujah was the best of times and the worst of times; the most exciting, the most eventful and extraordinary; and the most scary, most miserable, most death-defying."
"I feel like [Fallujah] was the pinnacle of my existence - that nothing I will ever do will be like what I have done," says the religious marine from Spotsylvania, Va. "I'm pretty sure there will be times just as good ... just as awesome - and I'll appreciate it in a different way. But right now, I still have my blinders on; the pall of the city is still over me."
That pall is proving difficult to escape, though the daily routine has changed dramatically since units were cut off from all but the orders of their commanders for weeks during the invasion. The unit's third Iraq deployment, slated to begin a year from now, looms in thought. But on the eve of their departure south, there are frequent calls home and e-mail.
"I called her this morning, to wish her good night," says Lance Cpl. Jason Canellis, a stocky gunner from Bandera, Texas, about his fiancée, Casey. "And I called her last night to wish her good morning."
But his family is still jumpy, and always asks how close he was when marines are reported killed. Corporal Canellis tells them the "good parts" - like steak and lobster for dinner one night - and skips the bad news.
Still, bad news hit home for Raider Platoon on New Year's Eve. Lance Cpl. Jason Smith was killed when two stacked anti-tank mines blew apart the Raider Four vehicle. At the group's last base inside the Abu Ghraib prison compound, his cot was next to Canellis's.
Corporal Smith was driving, and Raider was 16 minutes from the camp gate. The force of the blast blew through the driver's cockpit, separating seams of thick armor plate.
"I looked through my thermal sights, and saw a person go up - I thought it was the driver - raising his arms in a 'V,' and was reassured," recalls Canellis. But then platoon radio switched from news of an "urgent surgical" to a "routine" - a sure sign of a death.
"I don't know what I saw - maybe his soul coming out," says Canellis. "It really was a reality check. We were all feeling complacent. We weren't acting like it - we did not let our defenses down and let the enemy attack us - but we were complacent in our minds. [Now] I won't let my guard down until I am on American soil."
Like other incidents that resulted in the death of an LAR marine, "Smith" has become a defining moment and a landmark date in a unit that has lost track of calendar days.
The death of Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns and Staff Sgt. Theodore Holder in a November ambush is another marker; the killing of Lance Cpl.. Blake Magaoay, shot dead by an insurgent from a few feet away while clearing a house, has been memorialized with a red sign above the Fallujah fire station that reads: "Fire Base Magaoay."
"Doc" Nick Navarrette - the US Navy corpsman who worked on the worst cases when the scout vehicle doubled as an ambulance - is looking for coping mechanisms. "The more I think about it, the worse my dreams will be," says Doc Navarrette, from Omaha, Neb. His sleep is fitful; he wakes tangled in his sleeping bag and blankets.
"The other night I woke up four separate times.... I hope it doesn't have a long-term effect. I don't like being alone," he says. "I think about my friends' bodies - the last time I saw them. The more I am alone, the more I think about it."
Navarrette welcomes the decompression time that will be imposed by the long voyage home, and the psychological testing to spot stress problems. "Most of the time, the guys don't talk about it because it's being [weak], I guess," says Navarrette. "It's better to get it out together, instead of getting home and taking it out on wives and girlfriends."
But some experiences may remain impenetrable, even to loved ones. "I don't think anybody else will ever understand," says Navarrette. "I tried to explain it to my mom, how it's 2 percent fear and 98 percent excitement, or vice versa. It's like trying to explain being [weightless] up in space. I told my family: I am going to tell you one time, and that's it."
Such uncertainties mean that some marines may be unrecognizable. "Everyone has their limits, and their triggers," says Maj. Gil Juarez, the LAR company commander. "[The marines] are fine now - they are focused on the mission. But it's getting home where things can happen."
"Parents say: 'He's not the same person,' and they are right," says Major Juarez. "He's had a different experience, and seen things that people never get to see. I worry about a few of them. This will not be the same 19-year-old who left home and joined boot camp."
Among the changes is a higher threshold for risk, a greater appreciation for life, and a new impulse to seize the moment.
Corp. Timothy Milholin from Lititz, Pa., one of the three religious "wise men" in the platoon, says things have been so quiet that he has read five books - "probably" more than he has read in his entire life.
Corporal Milholin is due to leave the Marine Corps in June 2006, and is not looking forward to returning for a few months to Iraq - unless the action is as hot as Fallujah. He and his wife, Brianne, want to start a family.
"We talked about a baby, and waiting until I was out of the Marines," says Milholin, the wind rushing past a young face wrapped in camouflage Goretex jacket during Raider's last patrol. "But going through [Fallujah], and with such a long deployment, something broke. You can't wait for things to be perfect, because they never will be."
Before Fallujah, Milholin didn't think he was ready for children; now he is hoping for twins. "I'm looking forward to the simple life," he says, half-jokingly painting a picture of bucolic bliss. "Getting home, getting a house with a porch and a rocking chair, and cleaning my shotgun all day."
Managing high homecoming expectations will not be easy. But for now, everyday reality intrudes, and distracts.
The ammunition accounting requires popping bullet after bullet out of extra rifle magazines, separating tracers from "ball" rounds, and counting them all. In Fallujah, these marines blasted through more than 20,000 machine gun and rifle rounds, 300 grenades, 50 rockets, and 700 shotgun shells. They express surprise at finding 45 fragmentation grenades in a box, and "prepped" explosives that were not expended in the city.
And the marines point out a few highlights since Fallujah. The Jan. 30 election was one, in which several thousand people voted at polling stations where LAR deployed to bolster Iraqi forces. The unit also worked closely to train Iraqi commandos for several days, taking them on raids that broke the routine.
"They could pick out the bad guys. To us, this is what this mission is about - getting [Iraqi forces] ready to go, so that we can go," says 1st Lt. Michael Aubry, the Raider platoon commander from Arlington Heights, Ill. "In every transition, the marines can see they are making a difference. Those are visible rewards."
There have been other rewards, as well as drawbacks. Lance Cpl. Jeff Merbs, from Gualala, Ca., proved to himself that he could perform in combat.
"There is always the question in the back of your mind, until you actually do it," says the logger, who is built like a bear. "[But] the smells - that's what I hate about this place. There are only two smells: smoke or death, one or the other."
That's one reason no one will stay a day longer in Iraq than he has to. Cpl. Clinton Gerner, who turned 21 during the Fallujah invasion flies home this week to meet his end of service date. The sudden news causes him to dance.
Corporal Gerner says he has seen his wife, Andrea, only three weeks in the 10 months they have been married. Daughter Elayna Marie - who will be 2 next month - is waiting.
If he reenlisted, Gerner would get a bonus of $30,000, but that is not going to happen. Instead, Gerner plans to begin premedical studies at the University of Minnesota next fall, and wants to become a pediatrician.
"[The Marines] have done wonders for me, and for my character, but I need more control of my life," he says. He has five smaller siblings at home, including 7-year-old Sammy.
"Every night I am in his prayers," says Gerner. "And now I am alive. I came through without a scratch."