TALIL AIR BASE, SOUTHERN IRAQ — I feel guilty telling the troops I will be leaving in a few days. Most of them still do not know when their tour will be done. While I just missed Easter, some of them are worried about missing next Thanksgiving.
On the home front, the perception of this war seems to be that the conflict had a beginning and has had an end. The attempt to kill Saddam Hussein with a targeted air strike in Baghdad marked the beginning. And, in the eyes of many, the toppling of Mr. Hussein's statue in Baghdad marked the end. But that is just a perception. The reality for the troops in Iraq isn't that neatly packaged.
Instead, it starts with a sudden call up or a canceled departure date. And even though the fighting has tapered off and some units have been given a date to leave, no soldiers really are sure when they will go home.
From what I have witnessed, this waiting is the hardest part of war for US troops. The battles have become so one-sided that the traditional terror of war has receded, leaving only the chronic dull ache of missing loved ones.
For these troops, war isn't hell, it's more like purgatory.
Kevin Bohnsack, a medic with the 75th Flying Tigers, is waiting to get home and send a second batch of wedding invitations. He and his fiancée had to cancel their wedding after Dr. Bohnsack got deployment orders.
Master Sergeant Juan Maldonado, with the 332nd Rescue Squadron, knows that he is going to miss his son's high school graduation. Juan junior's graduation is in May but Juan senior won't be coming home until late June. "It's a one time affair. You won't see that again," he said. "I've already told him take a lot of pictures and email them to me." Instead of being there, he's looking forward to getting his son a car before he heads off to college. He earned it, Maldonado notes with pride, saying that his son wants to go into aeronautics and become an air force pilot.
In the mess hall, there are distant stares on the faces of people who are recalling simple things now missing from lives interrupted by war. For instance, after six weeks I miss frivolities like weekend drives and going out to eat. But I had only a short taste of what waiting to go home was like. A few reservists are bumping against the two-year limit on their deployments. Guard and reserve units may be kept here longer than their active duty counterparts so that active units can be redeployed sooner. It's all part of the constant shuffling of personnel necessary to keep up with the many US commitments abroad in former war zones.
Not only was my stay short, I came in and bowed out just for the most active part of the war.
In reality, the war embers had been smoldering for years. Pilots had bombed targets and taken fire as part of the regular patrols of the southern no-fly zone. Many had rotated through Kuwaiti bases during the 90s to support those missions. To them, "A-day" just meant more sorties and new rules of engagement.
Long after the ticker-tape parades, soldiers will rotate in and out of tours in Iraq. Bases like Talil are already being revamped for a big US presence. A recent New York Times report quotes defense department officials as saying the US is planning some form of long-term military relationship with Iraq.
That means many of the troops, for whom Iraq has become a "home away from home," will know the sands of the Middle East better than their own lawns in Middle America. Lance Corporal Johnny Salgado has been a Marine for four-and-a-half years, and he's spent a majority of that time deployed. His story is common. Most people have seen action before in Kuwait, Afghanistan, or the former Yugoslavia.
This reality of military life helps foster a certain attitude. Around the campfire at Talil, one airman suggested making a left-hand turn into Syria "while we're over here, so we don't have to come back later." And an email made the rounds on a Kuwaiti base saying it's time to take out Fidel Castro now.
Others express concern that war may start looking too easy to those back at home. "Where do we stop in terms of our role in policing the world?" asks Cmdr. Ron Sturgis, a Navy chaplain serving with the marines in Kuwait. " That remains an open-ended question. Ethically we have to give some consideration to it."
It's a question I am glad I can consider at home rather than in the heat of the Iraqi desert.
Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting fron Kuwait and southern Iraq is collected in a web special project available at http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/.